New Delhi: As the Pakistani ‘crackdown’ on jihadi groups enters its third day, Indian officials greeted the news of the house arrest of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar with scepticism, noting that previous bouts of detention had done little to deter the extremist leader from planning and organising violent attacks against India.
Mr. Azhar, who was released by the Indian government in 2000 following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar, was first placed under house arrest by the Pakistani authorities in January 2002 in the wake of the December 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament. “He may not have stirred out of his house in Bahawalpur after that,” a former intelligence official who closely followed the matter at the time told The Hindu, “but he was constantly in touch with his people. The front door was shut but the back door was open all the time.”
The farce of his arrest came to an end later that year when a Lahore court found that the authorities had not provided valid grounds for his continued detention. In a stroke of unintended, or perhaps intended, irony, the JeM chief walked free one day before the first anniversary of the Parliament attack. A month earlier, the Lashkar-e-Taiba head, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, had also been set free.
Indian officials say that this time around, they are determined not to allow Pakistan to use temporary detentions as an easy way of buying time till the international pressure which has built up following last month’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai dissipates.
The challenge facing New Delhi is to keep Pakistan and the international community guessing about what its next steps will be and to allow as much ambiguity as is needed to keep the U.S. and other friendly powers involved in putting pressure on Islamabad. But if the Indian authorities allow their rhetoric to get out of hand, they could well find themselves at the receiving end of international pressure as Washington frets about compromising its anti-Taliban operations on the western side of Pakistan.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the past 48 hours have seen spectacular and even unprecedented attacks on the supply lines of the U.S.-led military coalition, with the Taliban destroying as many as 160 transport platforms in and around Peshawar.
At the end of the day, Indian officials remain wary of the extent to which the Bush administration — or indeed the incoming Obama administration — would be prepared to take the fight against terrorism to the Pakistani military and its Inter-Services Intelligence. As part of the process of managing the post-Musharraf transition, Washington had expressed a high degree of confidence in the anti-jihadi credentials of Pakistan’s Army chief, Ashfaq Kayani, and the man he picked as head of the ISI, Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha in place of Lt. Gen. Nadeem Taj. “I don’t think they are going to admit they made a mistake now,” an official said.
When Indian officials informally aired their understanding that the LeT had mounted the Mumbai attacks with the knowledge of the ISI, they found their U.S. counterparts in a state of denial. After all, it was barely weeks since Lt. Gen Shuja Pasha had visited Washington to help coordinate the ongoing coalition efforts against the Taliban in the FATA region of Pakistan.
According to David Ignatius, the well-informed columnist of the Washington Post, every one seemed to come away from that meeting smiling. After all, thanks to a secret understanding put in place by Generals Kayani and Shuja Pasha, the U.S. Army was scoring rare successes in its operations such as the killing of Khalid Habib, al-Qaeda’s deputy chief of operations.
Just as India believes the ISI has an interest in preserving its long-term interest in jihadi groups even if their activities sometimes get out of hand, Indian officials say the Pentagon has an interest in preserving the structure and role of the ISI despite the latter going off and doing its own thing from time to time.
What the civil society and fledgling democracy of Pakistan need is for the ISI and military to be forced to break their connections with jihadi politics and terrorism once and for all. Recent statements by President Asif Ali Zardari suggest Pakistan’s civilian leaders are aware of the link between the attacks in Mumbai and the agenda of those who do not want democracy in Pakistan to flourish. Indian officials say they are aware of the negative consequences any escalation will have on the domestic balance of forces across the border. By merely talking about the possibility of an Indian attack, the Pakistani military has managed to get public opinion within the country to rally around its leading role. But what India fears is that once the world moves on to other issues, the arrests that Pakistan has made will go the same way as the earlier detention orders.