There has been a surreal yet surprising silence on the part of Indian strategic circle, political parties, press, academia and intelligentsia, in that order, about the working, motives, capacity and efficacy of Pakistan Army’s propaganda arm — Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Sporadic op-ed articles produced by some of the seasoned serving and retired officials on this subject recently defied depth and constructed on borrowed surface-level ideas.
Peculiarly, ISPR’s complex Information Warfare operations, in the past two decades, can be unearthed by open-source intelligence (OSINT) and in-depth analysis of Information Warfare campaigns orchestrated and fuelled by ISPR.
With the aid of a sheaf of documents, scores of photographs and a sizeable number of propaganda materials tumbling into view in the past few years along with our OSINT findings, the extent of ISPR’s propaganda machinery is laid bare.
With the onset of an internet revolution in the 2000s, Pakistan’s army waged Information Warfare on parity with its giant arch-rival, India, and also with other formidable powers. (Photo: Reuters, Facebook)
Pakistan was quick in realising the need for intelligence-gathering and espionage early on. It set up the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, as it is known, in 1948 amid the conflict between India and Pakistan in Kashmir. India set up its external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), which was envisaged and established in September 1968 in the post-1962 India-China and post-1965 India-Pakistan wars.
The futuristic propaganda arm ISPR came up a year later in May 1949, within the command and strict control of ISI, with a Colonel-level officer as its Director-General. Although mandated to work under the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, which itself came into existence in March 1976, the ISPR is a formidable branch of the ISI.
For over half a century, with a carefully crafted narrative of “Islam in danger", the ISPR assuaged domestic public anger over its army’s successive defeats against India (1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999). But its real efficacy started showing results in Information Warfare in the international arena, especially against India, in the post-Kargil-1999 era.
With the onset of an internet revolution in the 2000s, Pakistan’s army waged Information Warfare on parity with its giant arch-rival, India, and also with other formidable powers.
The advent of ever-increasing nature of cyberspace – the virtual environment and the growing dominance and influence of Social Media and Content Sharing Platforms – information and for that matter disinformation become powerful weapons, which possess the potential to alter foreign relations among nations and provides strategic victory to the best manipulator of information.
Pakistan’s growing propaganda army
Undetected by the world, the ISPR has raised an astonishing network of 4000-strong highly qualified Information Warfare Specialists during the past decade through a carefully crafted internship programme directly run by ISI.
Based on reliable OSINT estimation, the ISPR’s yearly indoctrination, internship and information warfare budget is 600 crore Pakistani rupees. Horizontal germination of social media across the world provided recruits, battlefield and raison d'être to wage incessant warfare against its select adversaries. Using social media, ISPR has been creating political divides and communal poisoning in India to further Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s “bleed India with a thousand cuts” policy.
Brutally beaten in conventional wars against India, and iron-handed elimination of scores of ISI-backed terrorists in Kashmir, the ISPR has been leading Pakistan’s invisible war by indoctrinating thousands of Kashmiri youths through propaganda to push them towards extremism. Ever since the defeat of Pakistan army in 1999 in Kargil, the ISPR has been headed by seven director-generals until 2020.
However, its strategic initiative Information Warfare, directed to counter India’s cold-start doctrine, has taken centrestage since the appointment of Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa as Director-General of ISPR in June 2012. His successor Major General Asif Ghafoor, who held the post in December 2016 and left unceremoniously without a promotion in January 2020, turned the ISPR into a formidable propaganda machine, enabling it to use Information Warfare against chosen targets to attain strategic objectives.
Owing to his spirited media-savvy appeal, Maj Gen Ghafoor converted ISPR’s trademark Information Warfare into fine art in real sense. During his incumbency at the ISPR, he heralded Adolf Hitler-style press conferences, produced appealing songs and movies glorifying Pakistani armed forces and made documentaries directed to propagate their views about various incidents with the intention to cater targeted population. His penchant for social media earned him the sobriquet “Twitter General” for successfully diversifying ISPR’s expertise in social media and hashtag campaigns as part of a narrative building.
Under the garb of internship programme offered by ISPR, the agency has been luring targeted scholars, both resident as well as Non-Resident Pakistani, into propaganda training and consistently cultivating a network of scholars and influencers across the globe by inviting them for the well-thought-out internship programmes.
During the course of the internship, these ISPR interns have been provided guided familiarisation visits to Pakistan’s strategic facilities like nuclear centres, military command and control stations and defence training institutes. They have been given the opportunity to interact with Pakistani leadership not less than serving Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff. Innocuously assigned the task to manage public relations of Pakistan’s defence establishment, ISPR covered an unimaginable mandate and gathered massive strength over the period of time. Run by ISI as a singular boss, ISPR does not shy away even from taking on Pakistani political leadership or even the judiciary.
India, on the other hand, has been living in the same vintage 1971-Bangladesh battle and 1999-Kargil conflict era. India, for long, continued with its traditional foreign policy as described by the Union Powers Committee of the Constituent Assembly headed by Jawaharlal Nehru, which on August 20, 1947, held that ‘External Affairs’ means: “1) the external representation of the state by accredited agents; 2) the conduct of the business and promotion of the interests of the state in outside countries; and 3) extradition.”
The internet and social media were not invented in those days and therefore, its power and prowess were outside the mandate and scope of influence or concerns in India’s foreign policy.
In recent times, India’s foreign policy, especially with Islamic nations, is being influenced because of the use of consistent Information Warfare in the cyberspace by ISPR. India’s historic foreign policy success achieved after her engagement with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in March 2019 with Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj’s participation at the first-ever OIC conclave was squandered cheaply because policymakers refused to recognise Pakistan-sponsored disinformation and propaganda campaigns in the cyberspace as a new and dangerous weapon. The statement by Iran leadership on Delhi riots and later some other middle-eastern countries accusing India of Islamophobia were the result of months of ‘Islamophobia in India” campaign by ISPR and its proxy groups across the world.
India’s age-old harmonious peaceful livings of various communities faced an unexpected yet real challenge in the form of ‘disinformation campaigns’ waged by her adversaries. Although the Indian now has a dedicated Defence Cyber Agency to deal with Information Warfare, in the absence of its civilian counterpart, its efficacy is clouded with mixed outcomes.
Among the Indian strategic circles, Information Warfare is a less understood subject and, not part of public discourse so far. It is particularly palpable when thousands of pages of the United States government-sponsored investigative reports subscribing to the fact how the Information Warfare tilted result of elections in the US, world’s oldest democracy, way back in 2016. There is no dearth of similar highly unimaginable examples starting from Iraq War of 2003 to Arab Spring 2009-2011 to Coronavirus in 2020, where Information Warfare has been applied doggedly by involved players.
Information Warfare is a hypnotised yet convincing management of perception, where manipulated evidence and information catered as fodder to the targeted audience can spark an enabling environment prompting decision-makers or citizens of the target country to take disastrous decisions in real-time. Such decisions may devastate domestic peace, create unrest, snap established ties, foment trouble, resettle foreign relations or even bring a new type of governing dispensation. Therefore, in simple term, Information Warfare is much beyond the precept of social media campaigns.
India is a victim and a bruised target of Information Warfare not because of the invincibility of its adversary, but because of her own follies and inertia. Protests over the decision of Indian Parliament to remove Article 370; outrage against Parliament’s Citizenship Amendment Act; and the calibrated campaign about Islamophobia in India have been some of the burning examples of follies and victimhood.
The flamboyance and lustre of the unprecedented Balakot airstrike were easily wasted before an ISPR propelled meagre Information Warfare campaign. Probably, the post-Balakot management was ISPR’s finest Information Warfare masterpiece, where it converted a disgraceful defeat into a victory, shamelessly pumping fake videos, manufactured narratives, planted analysis and articles in foreign media. Later even going to the extent of celebrating every year an adversary’s air attack into a self-proclaimed victory celebration with a carefully choreographed event called “Mujahideen-e-Aflak ko Salam” presided by PAF chief himself.
With an aim to accrue Indian public’s sympathy and gullibility, the ISPR has devised an ingenious method of attacking India’s political leadership primarily targeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) while baring Government of India as an entity from targeted attacks. The logic is simple – while all Indian people connect themselves with Government of India and may not accept it as a Pakistani target, the rest of the three targets Modi, Shah and RSS can be painted as divisive figures and entity where attacks are easy and a section of the population may join hands to subscribe to the Pakistan-propelled Information Warfare.
India, with no offensive cyberspace strategy or a dedicated Information Warfare agency, has been waging a lost battle. No matter how many corrective measures are adopted, the damage once done after disinformation propelled ominous events, cannot be undone. With the top leaders of India’s opposition parties including its then president of grand old Congress party unconsciously falling for ISPR propaganda and questioning the success of surgical strikes and airstrikes may have rung alarm bells but statements on domestic issues like Kashmir and Delhi riots are a dangerous result of consistent poisoning of domestic information space in India by ISPR.
The current state of influence operations by ISPR are just ripples before the storm. If India does not decide to timely and decisively respond and gives Pakistan a taste of its own medicine in the information space, the global image of Narendra Modi as a decisive leader and General Elections of 2024 would be the next target of ISPR’s emerging full spectrum influence operations.