How to Deal with Pakistan after Mumbai

March 4, 2009

Will never forget 26/11
Photo by Alagu M (CC)

On 6 January 2009, some five weeks after the Mumbai terror attacks, India's septuagenarian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in his most forceful speech on the tragedy stated that Pakistani authorities "must have had" a hand in the Mumbai attacks of 26 November 2008. While Singh stopped just short of accusing Islamabad of directly aiding the Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba, he was explicit in alleging Pakistani complicity by noting that "there is enough evidence to show that, given the sophistication and military precision of the attack, it must have had the support of some official agencies in Pakistan.".1

Given this, Singh provocatively charged Pakistan for "utilizing terrorism as an instrument of State policy." Singh also criticized Islamabad's reluctance to crack down on terrorists operating "freely" in its territory and its "inexcusable" failure to have never brought any of the perpetrators to justice. For these reasons he demanded that Pakistan hand over the "conspirators and perpetrators" of the Mumbai attacks to India where they would face justice.

Singh's charges received an almost immediate denial from the new civilian president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, who vociferously noted that his government has absolutely nothing to do with the terror attacks and that India has provided no hard evidence to prove otherwise. He criticized New Delhi's "finger-pointing" and "propaganda offensive" as playing into the hands of the extremists and terrorists who would like nothing more than "whip up tensions" between the two nuclear-armed neighbors. Zardari and senior Pakistani officials have repeatedly claimed that India has not only failed to recognize and appreciate his government's efforts to crack down on extremists, but also failed to understand that "stateless actors who are trying to create a problem in the region" also pose a grave threat to Pakistan's young and fragile democracy.

Indeed, soon after the attacks, Islamabad was first to offer its condolences and pledged full-cooperation with India to "bring the terrorists to justice." To its credit, it did not offer the usual obscurantist reasons, including the sorrows and grievances of the perpetrators to justify why terrorists strike. It was only after its conciliatory gestures were ignored by New Delhi that Islamabad resorted to charged rhetoric and to moving its troops along the Indian border.

Beyond the genuine horror, disgust and grief following the attacks, the verbal sparring and heated rhetoric coming from both sides are also designed for different audiences.

For Singh, whose administration has a truly dismal record in providing security and combating terrorism (both homegrown and cross-border), the immediate audience is the Indian electorate, who will be heading to the polls in the coming months and have in the past supported tough anti-terror measures and a "hard-line" policy towards Pakistan. Second, since 26 foreigners were killed in the Mumbai attacks, New Delhi hopes to rally international support to put pressure on Islamabad to meaningfully crack down on the various terror networks operating in its territory.

On the other hand, for Zardari, the central aim is to shed Pakistan's existential "jihadi culture" and the widespread image that his administration is hopelessly weak and compromised—a puppet of the country's powerful military establishment—and therefore, both unwilling and unable to crack down on terrorists operating within its territory.

Arguably, to Zardari, nothing is more important than to underscore that unlike his immediate predecessor General Pervez Musharraf (who jailed him and sent his wife, Benazir Bhutto into long exile), Pakistan's new democratic government is a responsible and trusted partner committed to forging peace with India and fighting terrorism in its soil and beyond. Indeed, senior Pakistani officials have repeatedly pointed out that by falsely implicating the Zardari administration and utilizing every effort to isolate and marginalize the new democratic government diplomatically, New Delhi is inexplicably weakening the best peace interlocutor it has had in years.

Are the mutual suspicions and recriminations simply the result of a long and bitter rivalry between a predominantly Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan—which have fought three wars against each other since they gained independence in 1947? Clearly they are. However, these deep-rooted animosities are only part of the answer.

India has every reason to be suspicious as the various Pakistani governments (both civilian and military) have actively helped create and give sanctuary to terrorists and other jihadi groups hostile to India, and there is compelling evidence that terrorist groups operating in Pakistan have often acted with the state's tacit consent, if not, its active connivance.

Pakistan's failure to shut down the infrastructure of terrorism—or the networks that recruit, train, equip and finance jihadists—inside Pakistani territory despite repeated demands from India, the United States and the international community to do so have raised troubling questions about the regime's commitment to fight terrorism. After all, Pakistan's highly-secretive military-controlled spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has long been a powerful and semiautonomous agency with its top officers having strong links with Islamist militants. The ISI helped create, mentor, finance and train Lashkar including Jaish-e-Muhammed, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Markazdawa, Dawat-ul-Irshad, the Taliban, al-Qaeda's International Islamic Front, and several other shadowy extremist groups in the 1980s to fight a proxy war against Indian forces in the Indian-controlled Kashmir—admittedly part of the larger Pakistani strategy to "bleed" India via a war of "a thousand cuts."

Most damaging in regards to the Mumbai attacks, on January 3, India handed to Pakistan a 70-page dossier containing "hard" evidence (which was also reviewed and approved by American and British investigators), that proves the attacks were plotted in Pakistan..2 Besides gory pictures of the massacre, the dossier contained details from the interrogation of the lone surviving gunman (a Pakistani citizen), recovered weapons and intercepted communications with the suspected handlers back in Pakistan, and perhaps most provocative, evidence that the Mumbai terrorists received commando-style training by the ISI and its operatives.

Clearly, for the Zardari administration determined to change Pakistan's much-maligned image as the hot-bed of Islamic militancy and terrorism, the evidence has been most embarrassing—with the potential to become a huge liability if his administration fails to act decisively. While, Islamabad's stonewalling and mixed-messages have created the perception that it is now part of a conspiracy of cover-up and inaction, no fair-minded person believes that the Zardari government itself was involved in the Mumbai attacks or that its intentions are not well-meaning—namely, it is committed to fight terrorism and militancy and improve relations with India. Given this, it is not wise for New Delhi to push a weak, bumbling and fractious Zardari administration to deliver results it simply cannot—at least not now. Rather, prudence demands that New Delhi (indeed, the international community) cut Islamabad some slack and try to help Pakistan's young and fragile democracy to consolidate itself first. Failure to do so can easily push Pakistan into the ranks of a failed state with disastrous consequences for India, the region, and the United States.

That the Zardari administration should be treated with kid-gloves does not mean an absence of private pressure to push and demand it to do the right thing. Rather, in a country of few options it is about giving the "only good option" and a fragile democracy to boot, some breathing space.

It is also about acknowledging that the new government has inherited a country facing monumental challenges. Pakistan's economy is currently in tatters and the country is besieged by unprecedented levels of political, ethnic, and sectarian violence. The hard fact is that unlike its neighbor, Pakistan's leaders have never shown much commitment to democracy and political pluralism. The state's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, an aristocrat who nevertheless understood the merits of constitutional government, died too early to plant deep democratic roots, and his unworthy successors (both military and civilian) intentionally and unwittingly decimated the country's already feeble political and economic institutions. Their legacy is a state that today only exists on paper.

In reality, the Pakistani state is deeply fragmented and divided into competing centers of power. On one side is the military establishment who appropriate much of the country's wealth, and on the other, an equally inept, venal and predatory civilian elite more interested in protecting their privileges than in advancing the commonweal. This is what explains why each group tries to amass as much wealth while they are in power. In fact, the current Prime Minister, Zardari, during his last reincarnation in office (as minister of investment in his late wife's government), was famously known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for his alleged practice for pocketing 10 percent of funds from government contracts. Before him, the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was equally corrupt, and after him, billions of dollars of American aid given to the Musharraff regime still remains unaccounted for.

However, widespread corruption and economic collapse was not the only legacy. The more deadly one has been the rise of lawlessness and banditry throughout the country—the result of decades of the so-called "Kalashnikov culture" undergirded by militant Islamic fundamentalism—or the "Talibanization of society."

In this zero-sum political culture no one is safe. The extremist groups the ISI spawned now like the out-of-control Frankenstein monster have taken a life of their own and increasingly see themselves as the only "pure ones"—the true defenders of the faith. The fiery mullahs who lead them have set up their own rules and norms, and in the vast lawless areas of Pakistan's western borderlands that are effectively Taliban country their sway holds—providing protection to "Imam" Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, including military training and indoctrination to the next generation of jihadis. These militants have no qualms in eliminating any real and perceived enemies, including their former masters. If General Musharraf reportedly escaped numerous attempts on his life, civilian leaders who are targeted with the blessings of the Islamic fatwa have not been that lucky. The former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto met a brutal end in December 2007, while her husband Zardari was the intended target of the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September 2008.

If the new civilian government is pushed too far and seems incapable or is seen as succumbing to foreign (meaning Indian or American pressure), the military could, as it has done in the past, once again return to power. This would be most unfortunate. As the Bush administration realized late: even its much vaunted front-line ally, General Musharraf, was all along playing a duplicitous game with the United States—receiving American largesse on one hand and funneling money and weaponry to the Taliban to help it gain a strategic foothold in Afghanistan—besides engaging in asymmetric warfare against Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir by cross-border attacks. Despite his promises, Musharraf never actively sought to capture bin-Laden and his ilk. As the Pakistani military, especially the powerful and secretive ISI, is known to harbor many Taliban and jihadi sympathizers (if not members), the nightmare scenario for both New Delhi and Washington would be if these extremists captured state power. This outcome, coupled with uncertainty regarding control and command of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal could effectively destabilized the volatile subcontinent with prohibitive repercussions.

Despite the history of antipathy between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan's internal stability is in India's national interest, and a stable Indian subcontinent is in America's strategic interest. For all its inherent limitations the new Pakistani government is a potential partner in this process. As victims and witnesses to nihilistic violence, Pakistan's civilian elites seem to have finally come to the conclusion that the costs of supporting militancy far outweigh its benefits.

In mid-January 2009, in what is a significant departure from past Pakistani behavior, the Zardari government has acknowledged that India has "provided significant proof" of the involvement of Pakistan nationals (of course, insisting that they acted without state involvement), has outlawed Jamaat-ud-Dawa, and closed some camps and arrested scores of individuals tied to terror groups. Moreover, it has forsworn militancy and agreed to accept international military and financial assistance in crushing terrorism within its borders and beyond.

India and the United States must take advantage of this opportunity (before it is too late) and help change Pakistan's dangerous trajectory. For India this means not expecting miracles from a weak civilian government and avoiding political grandstanding and condescending rhetoric. For example, India's demand that Pakistan hand over a number of its nationals accused of plotting terrorist atrocities in India to New Delhi for trial is clearly asking too much. Not only do both countries not have extradition treaties, but also a more realistic strategy for India and the international community would be to see (and pressure) if Pakistan will act on the evidence India has given and prosecute the guilty—and of course, demand that Pakistan holds a free and fair trial that is accessible to all countries that lost citizens in the Mumbai attacks. In the meantime, New Delhi must work to improve its own abysmally poor domestic security capabilities and cooperate with allies, especially the United States, to put pressure on Pakistani leaders, both military and civilian, to change course..3

There is no doubt that in Pakistan, India is facing a neighbor that is not only fundamentally dysfunctional, but is envious of India's success and has malicious intent towards her. Thus, the clamoring demands for sharp "Israeli-style" surgical strikes across the line of control to convey "an appropriate message to Pakistan," that India will no longer idly sit by is understandable. Yet, this would be a wrong strategy. It will play into the hands of the Pakistani military and the Islamists groups who will use to opportunity to make common cause to rally against India—and few doubt the fire-breathing mullahs' ability to whip the masses into a state of hysteria. It would also embolden the military to abandon the unpopular fight against the al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the western frontier and concentrate against the "infidel" enemy to the east. More dangerously, any threatening attack on Pakistani territory would invite an immediate retaliation—which could quickly escalate into a full-scale war. Thus, an Israeli-style response is simplistic because the parallels simply do not apply.

The long-term solution is via the application of systematic multilateral and diplomatic pressure. The United States, which bestows Pakistan with billions of dollars of aid every year, must use this significant leverage to demand meaningful political and economic reforms. Getting too cozy with a dictator (as Bush did with Musharraf), or threatening to unleash American firepower inside Pakistan if Islamabad fails to act upon "good intelligence" as Obama has promised, is a road to disaster.

The reality is that there are no quick fixes to the mounting problems facing Pakistan. Besides requiring Pakistan's leaders to demonstrate tangible outcomes in regards to economic and political reforms, including cracking-down on terrorism, the United States must support reformers within Pakistan by helping rebuild the country's decrepit state institutions, and in particular, rein-in the out-of-control ISI, especially the ISI-militant nexus that today operates both in and outside the various layers of government.


NOTES

1 The parent organization of Laskhar, known as Markaz-ud-Dawa is well funded, as it receives "donations" within Pakistan and also from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Laskhar was declared an international terrorist organization by the United Nations in 2002, requiring its assets be seized and its members forbidden from foreign travel. However, General Pervez Musharraf and the ISI responded by getting Lashkar to function under the name of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Subsequent American efforts to get the Jamaat-ud-Dawa also declared a terrorist organization failed in the face of Chinese and Pakistani opposition.

2 The United States endorsed the evidence gathered by Indian agencies regarding Pakistan's complicity. Based on the FBI's examination of call records of satellite and cellular phones used by Mumbai attackers and their Pakistan-based handlers, U.S. intelligence confirmed that one of the numbers logged on the satellite phone the terrorists used while navigating their way to Mumbai belonged to known Lashkar terrorist Abu Al Qama.

3Despite the clamor the one thing India must not do is introduce more "anti-terror" legislation. This is because India already has tough anti-terror laws. For example, while Article 22 of the Constitution enshrines habeas corpus, it also allows preventive detention under which an accused person can be jailed without charge or trial for up to three months. Similarly, the National Security Act of 1980 lays down several conditions permitting preventive detention, giving the state wide powers to define a threat and to act in national interest.
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