If politics and emotion do not dictate India’s response, the terrorist strikes in Mumbai could be a catalyst for ending the Pakistani military’s fatal patronage of jihadi groups.
In the charged atmosphere generated by the dangerous currents of domestic politics and media-induced panic, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is finding himself under tremendous pressure to respond decisively to initial evidence that ‘elements in Pakistan’ were responsible for last week’s terrorist outrage in Mumbai.
What the government 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, “whosoever they may be.”
But with 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. Over the weekend, 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 — that is, 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 troop 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 proponents of ‘limited war’ and ‘surgical strikes’ on terrorist camps are silent on how an eventual conventional escalation can be avoided. “We don’t have too many options but it is not as if we have zero options either,” a senior Indian official told The Hindu. A firm message delivered quietly is often more effective than loud declarations or threats. “But as the political and media pressure mounts, it becomes harder for us to exercise those options.”
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-Pakistan 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 on Saturday 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 U.S.-led war against the Taliban and the al-Qaeda — to the Line of Control. At least one Indian news channel leapt into the fray with an “exclusive” on troop mobilisations, following which both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime MinisterYusuf Raza Gilani phoned up U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Dr. Rice, in turn, called New Delhi, only to be told that 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.
With Dr. Rice headed this way now, the Indian side is gently seeking to up the ante with Mr. Mukherjee making guarded but ambiguous statements about India being prepared to take all steps necessary to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The Indian intention is 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 in India of tough action if the Pakistani side fails to deliver. And given the complex balance of forces in 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.
Taking on the Lashkar
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-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammed, the al-Qaeda and the Taliban which 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’.
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 in Pakistan’ were responsible for what happened in Mumbai.
Thanks to the providential arrest of a terrorist in Mumbai and his subsequent interrogation, the police are asserting with a considerable degree of confidence that the LeT planned and orchestrated the attacks that took the lives of more than 180 people. Apart from the confession of Ajmal Amir Iman, Indian intelligence agencies say they have communications intercepts and satellite phone call records linking the attackers to handlers in Pakistan.
By itself, the Indian charge need not discomfit 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 or had handlers with links to elements within the Pakistani military establishment, there is enough evidence to suggest that 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 U.S. 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 in the direction of the civilian government. At the very least, it should do nothing that will tilt things the other way.