Wisdom of restraint

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

Post-Mumbai, India must recognise the fragility of Pakistan and the global stake in neutralising the extremist groups that have enjoyed its Armys backing.

THE Manmohan Singh government has done well to avoid a knee-jerk response to the Mumbai carnage and choose diplomatic means over military ones, in effect rejecting the hyperbolic proposition that the attacks were Indias 9/11 or an act of war. This, coupled with the United States pressure on Pakistan to act against those involved in the attacks, has already resulted in the reported arrest of Laskhar-e-Taiba commander Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and the house arrest of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar.

How far President Asif Ali Zardaris government will go in acting against other LeT operatives remains unclear as does the Pakistan Armys willingness to weaken the groups military capability. But one can be cautiously optimistic.

Eventually, the gains could be modest but will probably contrast favourably with Indias unproductive, expensive costs estimated at Rs.7,000 to 10,000 crore and high-risk response to the Parliament House attack of December 2001, which led to a 10-month-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation involving one million troops. This took the two countries to the brink of war at least twice, with the potential for escalation to the nuclear level.

In the present case, India has no easy options. The task of pushing Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice must be conducted with the utmost caution without irreparably damaging the bilateral dialogue process or allowing a military build-up on the border or weakening Zardaris civilian government. Equally, India must maintain a certain distance from the U.S. and not get drawn into its plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Consider the basic characteristics of the Mumbai attacks. In all likelihood, they were planned and executed by militants, identified by Indian police and intelligence agencies as belonging to the LeT, who received high-level combat and maritime training from professionals of the kind usually associated with Pakistans Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency and former Army officers.

Unlike in most cases in the past, there is compelling evidence in the present instance. This partly comes from the interrogation of the detained terrorist Mohammed Ajmal Amir Iman alias Kasab, whose arrest was itself a unique achievement. More important is the circumstantial evidence, including the attackers Global Positioning System and satellite telephone records, e-mail tracks, ordnance factory markings on arms, fingerprints on boats and other materials, and Pakistani labels on their rations and personal effects left behind on MV Kuber, which they apparently hijacked en route from Karachi. Much of this is admissible in law.

The fact that the attackers carried out their assigned tasks with clockwork precision, targeted at least nine sites in Mumbai, and battled 500 commandos for 60 hours speaks of an extraordinarily high level of combat training and fanatical dedication.

Indian intelligence and police agencies must painstakingly collect clinching, incontrovertible evidence and establish the attackers identities and their Pakistani connections before making any more public statements. They must carefully preserve and analyse all forensic evidence.

There have been lapses here, such as allowing the reopening of Leopold Cafe and the Trident. Too many premature statements have been issued. Even so, the existence of a strong prima facie case simply cannot be denied.

Although a high Indian official, who would only be identified as an authoritative source, told journalists in a background briefing on December 4 that the government had evidence of the ISIs involvement, no specific disclosures have been made to substantiate this allegation. Nor has New Delhi gone public on this.

Going by the available literature on terrorism, including publications by Pakistani analysts such as Ahmed Rashid, Shuja Nawaz, Ayesha Siddiqa and Hussain Haqqani, not many groups in Pakistan barring the LeT and Jaish-e-Mohammed have access to such a high level of military expertise through the ISI or possibly Al Qaeda. Past LeT-ISI connections are well documented although some analysts believe that the LeT has outgrown ISIs support. But that some rogue ISI elements were involved cannot be excluded.

Officials and intelligence experts from the U.S. quoted in The New York Times say there is no hard evidence to link the ISI to the Mumbai attacks. But the ISI has shared intelligence with Lashkar and provided protection for it. Some others maintain that the collaboration goes beyond information sharing to include some funding and training. And these are not rogue ISI elements. Whats going on is done in a fairly disciplined way.

If the ISI is indeed involved, it would speak of a degree of complicity on the part of Pakistan Army officers. This is a hair-raising possibility, indicating loss of Army control over the agency and suggesting that the extremist rot has spread deeper and wider than anyone imagined.

However, even if the ISI or its rogue elements are not directly involved, Pakistan has a responsibility to act against the terrorists who were based on its territory and were in all likelihood its citizens, according to Ajmals confession.

A good hypothesis about the attackers motives is that they wanted to provoke India into a military retaliation. This would furnish Pakistan with an excuse for redeploying the 100,000 Army troops currently stationed near the Afghanistan border, easing pressure on Taliban-Al-Qaeda militants and allowing them to regroup before Barack Obama assumes the U.S. presidency and drafts thousands of more troops into the Afghanistan war.

Pakistani ministers, including Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and military officials have already spoken of the need for such redeployment in case tensions mount with India. Taliban commanders operating near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border have said they are willing to offer a ceasefire and fight India jointly with the Pakistan Army.

Such redeployment would probably tilt the strategic balance in Afghanistan, leading to a possible paralysis of and even withdrawal by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and chaos in what has become the worlds most dangerous and volatile region, on a par with West Asia.

This spells horrifying consequences for the neighbourhood. India will not be immune from them. A triumphant Taliban and re-energised forces of jehadi extremism will not stop on the India-Pakistan border. Their impact will aggravate the Hindutva menace.

That is why India cannot afford to create conditions that will allow tensions and a military build-up on the Pakistan border, which can set in motion such a disastrous chain of events. A major, and possibly early, casualty in the chain will be Pakistans fledgling democracy and civilian government, which already faces an uphill task.

Pakistan is in serious economic trouble, with inflation running at 25 per cent, its rupee in the doldrums, and a severe balance-of-payments crisis necessitating huge handouts. Worse, there is a growing collapse of governance and rising ethnic strife, manifested by the Mohajir-Pashtun clashes in Karachi, a creeping Taliban takeover of the North-Western Frontier Province, and an insurgency in Balochistan.

Virtually all institutions of governance have lost their integrity. The entire system may begin to unravel if a new military crisis breaks out.

It is plain that India has no realistic military option unless it wants to catalyse or accelerate the disintegration of Pakistan. All the irresponsible talk about surgical strikes against LeT camps misses the simple fact that these are makeshift entities, where no personnel or equipment is stationed. True, the LeT has a 75-acre complex at Muridke near Lahore.

But for the most part, it houses madrassas, hospitals and skill-generation centres. It would be ludicrous to attack these even assuming an attack would not be intercepted or invite massive retaliation.

This, of course, does not mean that India should put all its eggs in the U.S. basket or rely on it to mediate its relations with Pakistan. This has always proved a high-risk gamble: the U.S. is guided by its short-term and parochial interests and plays one side off against the other, with unpleasant consequences for both.

Even less should India identify with and endorse the ISAF strategy in Afghanistan. It is therefore disturbing to note that the authoritative source referred to earlier characterised the U.S.-led war at the Afghanistan border as also our war.

India should chart out an independent course. After the five Assembly elections, which proved that the Bharatiya Janata Partys hysterical anti-terrorism, attack-Pakistan plank has few takers, the government has greater freedom to fashion its own diplomatic strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan.

The best strategy would be to take the Mumbai case to the United Nations Security Council under Resolution 1373, which requires all states to refrain from providing support to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts, give early warning to other states and deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts all on pain of punitive measures.

This multilateral approach will avert overbearing U.S. influence in South Asian affairs. Contrary to irrational fears, a 1373 reference will not revive the Kashmir issue or put India at a disadvantage in any other way. But adopting this course means thinking independently of the U.S. and asserting Indias policy autonomy. It is unclear whether our leaders are prepared to do this.

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