04 February 2009

A Common Enemy

Taking action against the perpetrators of the terrorist attack in Mumbai is in Pakistan’s interest too. (my article in the December 2008 issue of the Pakistani magazine, Newsline)...

December 2008
A Common Enemy

Taking action against the perpetrators of the terrorist attack in Mumbai is in Pakistan’s interest too.

From Siddharth Varadarajan in New Delhi

The Indian government’s accusation that “elements from Pakistan” were behind the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai has generated a curious and unhelpful response from the media on both sides of the border. Though New Delhi has made this charge often in the past, what made the claim especially credible this time was that it was based on the arrest of one of the terrorists and his subsequent interrogation. In India, however, the carefully-worded official phrase which allowed for a distinction to be made between individuals, organisations and the state quickly got reduced, in the telling and retelling by television stations, to simply “Pakistan.” And across the border, Pakistani commentators and, subsequently even officials, tended categorically to rule out the possibility of any of the perpetrators being Pakistani nationals, as if “elements from Pakistan” are not capable of staging terrorist acts. “I very much doubt, Larry,” President Asif Ali Zardari told CNN’s Larry King, “that [the captured terrorist Ajmal Amir Iman] he’s a Pakistani.

Lost in the fog of media-induced hysteria, then, was the simple fact that the perpetrators of this heinous crime were enemies of both India and Pakistan and that the attack which they staged in Mumbai was aimed at derailing the peace process between the two countries, and tilting the balance of power within Pakistan’s emerging democracy away from elected civilians and back towards the shadowy security establishment.

What the government of India has said and done so far has been measured and correct. It has been mindful of the responsibility and restraint with which the world expects India to conduct itself. And it has reflected the reality that Pakistan today is a country and polity and society that is more at war with itself than with any other adversary, real or imagined. And yet, with elections around the corner and the ruling Congress party under attack for its inept management of internal security, the danger of politically-induced overreach always remains.

External affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee got off to a sober and dignified start last week, when he told his Pakistani counterpart that the elements responsible for the carnage did not want a “leap forward” in relations between India and Pakistan and were hence acting against Islamabad’s interests as well. And on Monday, India issued a demarche to Pakistan in which it said it expected “strong action” against those responsible for the attacks.

But with Indian TV channels declaring “enough is enough” and calling for the start of a “real” war on terror, the government finds itself increasingly on the back foot. Barely had the shooting in Mumbai ended when there was wild speculation about a punitive troop build-up by India along the Pakistan border, the suspension of the dialogue process, the snapping of air and bus links and even, most improbably, the termination, by India, of the ceasefire along the Line of Control that has saved hundreds of soldiers lives on this side since it was first put in place more than five years ago. Placed alongside this rich menu of macho “options,” Monday’s demarche has been attacked by critics as too timid. And predictably, the opposition has gone for the jugular, with at least one senior BJP leader irresponsibly demanding action by India similar to what the United States did after 9/11, i.e. war.

It is too early to say how these demands for an immediate and decisive response to what happened in Mumbai will affect relations with Pakistan. One would have thought the futility of offensive troops’ deployments and the suspension or downgrading of normal transport and diplomatic relations – methods the BJP-led Vajpayee government unsuccessfully tried after the terrorist attack on Parliament in December 2001 – would be apparent by now. And despite the new ‘cold start’ doctrine of the Indian Army, all arm-chair proponents of ‘limited war’ and ‘surgical strikes’ on terrorist camps are silent on how an eventual conventional escalation can be avoided.

The executioners of the terrorist attack on Pakistan, of course, would like nothing better than for India to get trapped into an aggressive, and preferably, military response. For they are looking for a way to kill the peace process and shift the focus of international attention back to the Indo-Pak border, thereby relieving the military pressure that both the jihadi groups and the Pakistani military are facing on the Afghan side.

In a pre-emptive information strike, the Director-General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency held an off-the-record briefing as the Mumbai incidents ended to warn of a possible Indian troop build-up. The real aim of the briefing, of course, was to threaten the redeployment of Pakistani forces from the border areas of Afghanistan – where they have suffered heavy casualties in the US-led war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda -– to the Line of Control. At least one Indian news channel then leapt into the fray with an “exclusive” on troop mobilisations, following which both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani phoned up US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Dr. Rice, in turn, called New Delhi, only to be told the story had no factual basis. But Washington’s appetite for mediation in an area of the world that Western wire services love to describe as a “nuclear flashpoint,” was whetted enough for her to schedule an emergency visit to India and Pakistan.

Once Dr. Rice said she was coming, the Indian side sought to up the ante with Mr. Mukherjee making guarded but ambiguous statements about being prepared to use all the means at the state’s disposal to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Indian intention was obviously to get the Americans to read the riot act to GHQ in Rawalpindi, where the real decisions on matters of deep policy are still taken, despite the restoration of civilian rule. The only problem with this strategy is that it raises domestic expectations inside India of tough action if the Pakistani side fails to deliver. And, given the complex balance of forces inside Pakistan, with the civilian government trying to assert itself vis-à-vis the military, whatever tough action India takes is likely to strengthen the hands of the military establishment – an establishment that will cite renewed tension with India as a reason for not liquidating the strategic investment it has made in jihadi groups over the past three decades.

In the quest for a stern and fitting response, all options, including casually-bandied about military ones like ‘surgical strikes,’ flounder on a simple fact: the only force capable of defeating terrorist groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Al-Qaeda and Taliban who operate from Pakistani soil, is the Pakistani state itself. And the Pakistani state needs to take up this task urgently if it is to avoid imploding or becoming the next target in Washington’s ongoing ‘war on terror’. President-elect Barack Obama was quite candid about this during the campaign.

Here it is essential that India provides to Pakistan and to the international community as comprehensive and compelling a dossier as it can assemble, proving its contention that ‘elements from Pakistan’ were responsible for what happened in Mumbai.

Thanks to the providential arrest of Iman, the police are asserting with a considerable degree of confidence that the LeT (or Jamaat-ud-Dawa as it is now known) planned and orchestrated the attacks that took the lives of more than 180 people. Apart from Iman’s confession, Indian intelligence agencies say they have communications intercepts and satellite phone call records linking the attackers to handlers in Pakistan. One of the handlers, it is claimed, is an LeT commander who goes by various aliases, including ‘Muzammil’.

Another piece of evidence is surely the statement emailed to a number of TV stations as the attack unfolded. Titled ‘Reality, not warning’, the statement is written in the Devanagari script in a curious mixture of Hindi and Urdu and is so riddled with spelling mistakes that it is clear its authors lacked the basic knowledge of a native Hindi speaker. The statement is signed ‘Mujahideen Hyderabad Dakkan’, with the ‘Dakkan’ qualifier suggesting the non-Indian and presumably Pakistani provenance of its authors since ‘Hyderabad Dakkan’ is the name regularly used in Pakistan to distinguish the south Indian city from its less famous namesake in Sindh.

In a telephone interview by one of the terrorists to India TV in the midst of the standoff, the attackers used the same name to describe their group, thereby ending any doubts about the link between the email and the terror strike. One of the only identifiable goals the statement mentions is the “return of Muslim states” to Muslim rule, again a familiar slogan of Pakistan-based Islamist revanchists like the LeT. In an interview to me in Islamabad in 2000, LeT chief Hafiz Mohammed Saeed said his group’s goal was the ‘liberation’ of not just Kashmir but all those regions of India that once were ruled by Muslims. In contrast, radicalised Indian Muslim groups like the Students Islamic Movement of India tend to speak of bringing India into an ‘international Islamic order.’

Based on a simple textual analysis of the statement itself, it is reasonable to conclude that the authors of the email were most likely Pakistanis, who were keen to pass themselves off as Indians. Taken together with police claims about Iman’s confession and other pieces of evidence such as the arrival of the terrorists from the sea, the Indian government’s claim that the Mumbai incidents were perpetrated by ‘elements in Pakistan’ seems reasonably well-founded.

By itself, this charge need not alarm the Pakistani authorities since it is clear that ‘elements in Pakistan’ have perpetrated dozens of terrorist strikes inside their own country. Whether the terrorists who attacked Mumbai belong to a group that has attacked Pakistani targets, such as the Marriot, or military cantonments and personnel or had handlers with links to individuals within the Pakistani military establishment, there is enough evidence to suggest it is impossible for GHQ in Rawalpindi to firewall the two. The brutal murder of Daniel Pearl showed the ease with which a ‘Kashmir-inspired’ terrorist like Omar Saeed Sheikh could make the Al-Qaeda’s agenda his own. And the deliberate targeting of the US and British citizens and Jews in the Mumbai attacks should be a further reminder to Washington of the danger of allowing groups like LeT any breathing space.

Rather than threatening a ‘limited war,’ surgical strikes or a suspension of the peace process, the logic of this metastatis is the most compelling argument India can marshal in its quest for the international community to insist that the Pakistani military make a final break with jihadi groups. The war that was launched in Mumbai will only end when the Pakistani military is compelled by the world and its own people to end its war on its own society. India can help this process by finding ways to help tilt the balance of power further and further in the direction of the civilian government. At the very least, it should do nothing that will tilt the balance the other way.

Unlike the Mumbai blasts of 1993, when the world didn’t care about India’s accusations about a Pakistani hand, and the military stand-off of 2001-2, when the world panicked at India’s response to the terrorist attack on Parliament, Islamabad, this time is likely to find itself under considerable international pressure to shut down all jihadi groups, including the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. In the interest of improved relations with India and the world, and in the interest of excising the cancer that has eaten away at the innards of its own society and polity, the Pakistani political and military establishment needs to act decisively and urgently to ensure that the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks are brought to justice.

The author is the Strategic Affairs editor of The Hindu, India’s leading English-language newspaper. He is based in New Delhi.

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