On 1 April, the Atlantic Council lent its Digital Forensic Lab (DFR) services to Facebook and its cybersecurity team in endeavour that saw 103 pages, accounts and groups all allegedly linked to Pakistan’s military’s PR wing removed. Facebook stated that ‘coordinated inauthentic behaviour’ was the reason for taking them down. The DFR lab, well known to Pakistanis as one of the first sites during the February Indo-Pak escalation to analyze and debunk India’s erratic claims of striking huge numbers of ‘terrorists’ on Pakistani territory, stated that there was insufficient evidence for Facebook to attribute the ‘network’ to the Pakistani Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) but that its behaviour was ‘consistent with the ISPR’s behaviour’.
Notably, accounts of the Indian Congress party, biggest rival to the ruling BJP government, were also taken down in large numbers at a time when Indian elections approach and the atmosphere there is volatile. The development may also be connected to Indian legislation passed last year seeking to influence content on the country’s most used social media sites based abroad – such as Facebook – according to the Indian government’s preferences.
Funded by the US military, military industry complex giants such as Lockheed Martin, NATO itself and the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Atlantic Council was named as a partner by Facebook months prior to the November 2018 US general elections to shut down large numbers of accounts. The accounts mostly belonged to what can broadly be described as anti-war activists and alternate media congregators. Using Atlantic Council’s services, Facebook purge of near 600 pages and 250 personal accounts in October 2018 saw the taking down of several accounts that had already been in the establishment media’s crosshairs in 2016 for their views on Russiagate, which at that time was the major controversy heating up the domestic US political environment – and concurrently, the geopolitical atmosphere throughout the world.
The DFR’s assertion that accounts with poor spelling artwork or sloganeering typical of Pakistani online patriots (contrasting starkly to the curt and formal tone the ISPR usually employs) were a ‘covert network’ run by the military was irrational, but fit into Facebook’s loose criteria for ‘inauthentic coordinated behaviour’. The DFR also emphasized the ‘hostility’ of the ‘ISPR network’ to India, despite the smooth and even cool tone the ISPR adopted during the February escalation with India (triggered by Indian aggression itself motivated by domestic point-scoring).
This development, and its timing, indicates the progression to a more intimate and strategic stage of an alliance that has been shaping in South and West Asia for many years now: the Indo-US partnership with its sights set on weakening the Pakistani military and the Pakistani state itself.
Military ties between the two blossoming in recent years, exemplified by the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement finalized in 2018 and the shared views on the need to counter Chinese influence in the Indian Ocean region. However, one of the most well known and powerful censorship drivers from the Western establishment going after the one actor within Pakistan – the military – that India has been most vociferous in its complaints about is a strategic favour that could mean the US and India agree on the need to cut Pakistan down to size. The targeting of both Pakistan’s military and the BJP’s main domestic political rivals in a censorship drive when India’s elections are approaching and its ruling party is under increasingly heavy criticism for its reckless and unsuccessful military adventurism indicates that India’s US partner is willing to ‘cover’ for it as well.
The powerful wielders of censorship thus seem to find India’s BJP status quo agreeable and useful even after India’s conduct in the February ‘Kashmir Escalation’ with Pakistan saw its media and military produce a series of embarrassing gaffes. With India’s national security apparatus describing its ‘readiness’ to begin yet another escalation with Pakistan despite local anti-India armed resistance continuing to rise in Kashmir, the US-Indo partnership is quite clearly demonstrating its durability.
Furthermore, that it was Pakistan’s military that was targeted by the censorship is something of the utmost significance unto itself for a number of reasons.
The recent history of the US, Pakistan military and India triangle
Although it was a military ruler in General Musharraf who effectively railroaded his country into supporting the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 (after lying to his people about the supposed economic aid benefits which never truly accrued) and also provided the CIA and private military contractors a free hand in Pakistan to the great chagrin of much of the country, relations between the US and Pakistan nosedived over the last decade largely due to worsening ties between the US and the Pakistan military with India factoring into the equation prominently.
Despite the over-concessions during the Musharraf era to the US as well as those of the civilian government that followed in 2008, the US showed little hesitation in enhancing ties with Pakistan’s rival India. The 2008 Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement and following expansion in defense trade contrasted starkly to the meagre amounts of ‘aid’ (much of which was spent facilitating NATO transport through Pakistani territory to Afghanistan) the US granted Pakistan from the Musharraf era onward until its recent termination.
The USA also immediately corroborated India’s unproven and highly shaky claims of Pakistan-based groups carrying out the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and piled pressure on Pakistan at a time when nearly its entire western front with Afghanistan had become a warzone due to the entrenched Takfiri group, the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
Repeated military operations against the TTP from 2009 onward in Afghanistan-like rough terrain saw the Pakistan military re-establish state writ in the troubled tribal areas, which had remained underdeveloped and semi-autonomous throughout the country’s history. However, the military’s ties with the US continued deteriorating even as it destroyed what was essentially the region’s deadliest extremist group: the obvious reason for this being that it continued to refuse to assist the US in fighting the Afghan Taliban.
The Afghan Taliban – an organization not to be confused with the TTP and not sharing its unyielding brand of expansionist Daesh-like extremism – continued to be Pakistan’s only bet in Afghanistan as a faction not hostile to it and in the Indian camp as the US and the troubled Kabul governments have remained. Baloch separatist groups fighting the Pakistani state – and seen as useful strategic assets by many a Beltway think tank – and supported by the Indians have long found refuge in NATO-protected, Kabul government-held Afghan territory. Remnants of the TTP which fled to Afghanistan following Pakistan’s military operations have also found support from the Indian and Kabul government’s intelligence agencies.
With the US doing essentially nothing to address India’s ambitious moves against Pakistan out of Afghanistan, the covert support and state refuge undeniably provided by the ISI to the Afghan Taliban and their startlingly successful military campaign became a necessity for the Pakistani military. Compounding the military and ISI-specific pressure on Pakistan exerted by the US and India was the willingness of the Pakistani civilian to bow to US demands, even if it meant treacherous conduct. This culminated in the Pakistani ambassador to the US in 2011 covertly requesting US assistance to counter the military’s influence shortly after the alleged Osama bin Laden killing on Pakistani territory by a US raid.
Late that year, 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed at the Afghan border by NATO helicopters thus triggering a subsequent closure of US military bases in the country. NATO supply routes to Afghanistan were blocked as sensationalist interventionist propaganda about ‘securing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons’ flew around in US media. Coupled with the size of Pakistan and its nuclear capabilities, as well as the jarring effect on NATO logistics of the route blockade, a Libya-like scenario was avoided and Pakistan soon found itself rapidly enhancing economic and military ties with China while gradually reopening the NATO route.
Just as Indo-US ties continued to blossom following the tumultuous year of 2011, the Pakistan military vastly reduced its arms imports from the US while developing its own indigenous military industry and allowing the Chinese to become the leading arms exporters to Pakistan. Moreover, after the US announced in 2018 ceasing the participation of Pakistani personnel in its elite training courses, Pakistan and Russia signed agreements for the training of Pakistani personnel at top Russian military institutions, demonstrating how low US-Pakistan military ties had plummeted.
A greater security dilemma for the Pakistanis and potential for greater regional conflagration
Considering the extent of the difference and mutual incompatibility between the strategic interests of the US and the survival-oriented regional interests of Pakistan, the Indo-US nexus is likely to continue its current trajectory while US-Pakistan ties continue to prove brittle and dysfunctional.
With Indian aggression consistent despite the military setbacks – as well as the failure on the vital information-warfare front – incurred during the February escalation and US preference for India clearly beginning to become clearer, propaganda against the Pakistani military is likely to amplify in the coming months. The heavy losses Indian military has taken in occupied Kashmir and the alarming number of deadly accidents experienced by the airforce since the start of the will only would the large economically powerful state’s pride and create a desire for payback.
The somewhat naïve support lent to the ‘US-Taliban peace talks’ by the Pakistani side will likely not change this, and the state may soon find itself in a pressure situation far worse than was the case in 2011. India has its own high stakes in Afghanistan, and all in all the ingredients for a heated up South and West Asia seem well in place.