If there is a Pakistani inter-services directorate as lethal as the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), it is the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR).
Military strategists may balk at the fact that I am equating a notorious intelligence agency with an innocuous media management department. Since the times I executed cyber operations in the government, I have been obsessed with deconstructing the evolving mandate of this little-known outfit. And I have always held the opinion that the role, or rather the potential, of the ISPR has been severely underestimated in the Indian strategic circles.
Cyber operatives like me have been envisioning this scenario since a decade: how the South Asian flashpoint would manifest itself in the cyber-enabled information battlespace. The Balakot escalation unleashed another invisible playbook of the Pakistani military, and the ISPR was its key orchestrator.
Since 2009, the Pakistani Army has conducted a series of public wargames dubbed as Azm-e-Nau, meant to counter the elusive Indian ‘Cold Start’ doctrine. With many successful iterations over the years, these exercises simulated massive mobilisations, augmented by net-centric warfare, stopping short at the tactical nuclear weapons threshold. Azm-e-Nau further chiselled Pakistan’s home-brewed philosophy of ‘hybrid war’ – fusing together many conventional and unconventional elements of conflict, power and diplomacy.
Interestingly, the wargames treated the ISPR as the crucial pivot of conflict escalation and de-escalation. It was meant to undertake information operations, military deception and strategic communications – benignly dubbed as ‘perception management’ in military parlance. This was a couple of years prior to ‘hybrid war’ becoming all the rage in media circles, manifesting itself as the wildly successful Russian playbook against Georgia, Crimea and the US elections.
There were other classified Pakistani exercises which also hinted at the deftness and dexterity of the ISPR’s information warfare strategy. All of this neatly converged, almost with textbook precision, in the showdown after
Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff of the armed forces of Russia, is thought to be the key proponent of its ‘hybrid war’ philosophy – so much so that the Western media prefers to call it the Gerasimov Doctrine. Gerasimov clearly articulated and foresaw “the role of mobile, mixed-type groups of forces, acting in a single intelligence-information space.”
With his carefully orchestrated social media spectacles during the Balakot escalation, Major General Asif Ghafoor, the current director general of the ISPR, proved to be a formidable disruptor as well.
Pakistan had an undue structural advantage in the information battlespace. International relations were the overarching backbone of India’s response to Pulwama. The Ministry of External Affairs was tasked with communications, and rightfully so. On the other hand, with the political establishment in Pakistan being a dud, the escalatory and de-escalatory ladders scarily fell fully under the military. It gave rise to a natural asymmetry.
The hawkish ISPR, which must have been itching to flex its muscle, merely ended up conducting trademark information warfare manoeuvres like denial and deception. Indeed, there were times when its twitter shenanigans pushed the envelope and stole the initiative for a few minutes. They did put the Indian machinery in reactive mode, especially after the capture of a fighter pilot.
If one had carefully studied Ghafoor’s disposition and the enhanced mandate of the ISPR, then some of the tactical wins could have been averted. Back in 2017, the two-star general had the temerity to publicly rebuke the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, after a media leak painted the Pakistani Army in negative light. Ghafoor is also the loudest exponent of the ‘Bajwa Doctrine,’ hinting at his closeness to the army chief.
The shining or waning star of the ISPR completely mirrors the tumultuous history of Pakistan. Under General Ayub Khan, the Bureau of National Research & Reconstruction – the ISPR’s predecessor – actually had the mandate to conduct intelligence operations.
Brigadier AR Siddiqi, the former head of the ISPR, is the author of The Military in Pakistan: Image & Reality. He openly speaks about the “self-love” and “self-promotion” of the generals that became the bane of ISPR’s perception management. That clearly seems to be the case with Ghafoor.
In fact, a 2018 dossier of Amnesty International disclosed a series of cyber attacks which targeted Pakistani human rights activists. Due to the blundering operational security of the attacks, they could directly be attributed to the ISPR. Imagine a Goebbels-ian propaganda arm spying, kidnapping and even silencing journalists and dissenters. It hints at the unbridled power of Ghafoor in the current scheme of things. He has repeatedly postulated the theory of ‘fifth-generation warfare’, which thrives on irregular instruments and political chaos.
Thankfully, we saw little or no action in the information battlespace. But due to the aforesaid advantage, the ISPR could have weaponised its mandate to wage a full-frontal cyber-enabled information offensive. This is something the Indian security principals may need to be wary of, as our domestic political environment is ripe for exploitation. I would also recommend that information operations officers from the tri-Services Integrated Defence Staff be attached to our public relations divisions during such crises.
At a recent military conference where I spoke, a senior officer remarked at my unwarranted glorification of the enemy as I labelled Ghafoor as the Gerasimov of South Asia. From the Athenians and Spartans to Rommel and Patton, the obsession with peeking into the adversary’s mind has required some accommodation of his ingenuity.
(The writer is a cyber intelligence specialist and has worked with the Indian government and security response teams of global companies)