In a cleft stick

Published : Jan 02, 2009 00:00 IST

The Mumbai attacks have thrown up in stark relief the tensions between the civilian government and the Army in Pakistan.

in Islamabad

ON December 7, the residents of Muzaffarabad witnessed unusual military activity in their quiet city, the capital of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK). Several military trucks were seen going up the rough road to Shawai Nullah, five kilometres from the citys outskirts. A helicopter was seen hovering over the area, and some people heard explosions from the woods in Shawai, desolate except for the markaz, or centre, of the Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the front organisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the banned militant group blamed by India for the outrage in Mumbai.

No one was sure what was happening up there that Sunday afternoon. The road had been sealed off by the military at the point where it branched towards Shawai. But soon enough Islamabad was agog with reports that the security forces had carried out a raid on the JuD markaz, taken over its mosque and madrassa, and arrested some people. Among those arrested were said to be Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, an LeT commander whose name figured prominently in the Indian media as the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks.

Before 2002, the centre was well known as the office of the LeT. Local journalists used to go there often for LeT press conferences; they were also invited for itftaaris, the breaking of the fast during the Ramzan month. But after the ban on the group in January 2002, the office seamlessly renamed itself after the JuD, founded by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, who also founded the LeT. Despite the JuDs loud assertions that it is nothing but a social welfare organisation doing charity work, it is well known in Pakistan and internationally as a front organisation of the LeT.

It took the Pakistan military more than 24 hours to confirm the raids as an intelligence-led operation against a banned militant organisation. The raid came as United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Cable News Network (CNN) in an interview that there was no doubt that the Mumbai attackers had made use of Pakistani territory. Earlier, she and Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate who lost to Barack Obama, separately asked Pakistan to act urgently. McCain bluntly put out the message that unless Pakistan acted, it faced reprisal from India in the form of air strikes. President-elect Obama added weight to that by saying that a country had the right to defend itself when attacked.

As yet, the Pakistan Army and the Pakistan government have not linked the action against the LeT directly to the Mumbai attacks. While there is frenetic speculation in the Indian media whether the arrested men would be handed over to India for questioning, or if Indian investigators would be allowed to interrogate them, the Pakistan military has refused to divulge details about the number of people arrested and whether Lakhvi had been detained.

Political Pakistan has made it quite clear that the chances of an interrogation by Indian investigators of any Pakistani suspect in the Mumbai outrage are remote, not to speak of handing them over to India. If evidence against any Pakistanis complicity in the attack emerged, the individual or group would be prosecuted within the ambit of Pakistani law, it said.

The contours and scope of a Pakistani proposal for a joint investigation mechanism, made first by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Islamabad on November 29, are still not clear. But the Pakistani offer of cooperation has basically hinged on the condition that India will provide concrete proof or hard evidence of the complicity of Pakistanis, or a Pakistani militant group, in the attack. Qureshi said Pakistan would carry out its own investigations, and if it found there was need to take action, it would initiate such action.

But, according to Indian officials, New Delhi wants Pakistan to take wider and more serious action than raid a couple of LeT camps and put a dozen people behind bars for a few months. India wants action against Hafiz Saeed, it wants the JuD to be banned, and it wants Pakistan to dismantle all other militant groups that have a declared animus against India.

This appears to have been behind the demand to hand over Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Maulana Masood Azhar, who was released by the Indian authorities in 1999 in exchange for the hostages on the hijacked Indian Airlines IC 814. India also asked Pakistan to hand over the rest of the individuals on the famous list of 20, flagging Azhar and Mumbai underworld dons Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon who are believed to be living in Pakistan.

India demands nothing less than a complete dismantling of the infrastructure of the LeT and all other similar groups, such as the JeM, so that the Mumbai attacks will never be repeated. That demand was also echoed in Washington, where State Department spokesman Sean McCormack described the steps Pakistan was taking as positive but implied that more needed to be done. What we dont want to see are future attacks coming, emanating from Pakistani soil, McCormack said.

Can the Asif Ali Zardari government, despite its reiteration that it equally feels the pain of Mumbai, and its apparent desire to take action against the non-state actors on its soil who are believed to have perpetrated the Mumbai attacks, deliver what India and the world want?

This is the million-dollar question that India and the world are asking as evidence stacks up against the LeT. The answer to that lies in the tricky realm of civil-military relations in Pakistan.

The Mumbai attacks have thrown up in stark relief the reality of two opposing power centres in Pakistan and the tensions between them. If the July attempt by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) government to rein in the countrys Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) ended with the government retiring hurt, the Mumbai attacks pitched both sides in a fresh battle. In the first round, the government gave a repeat of its July performance and said that it would send the ISI chief to New Delhi for talks. But it had to issue a correction on that soon.

The most important test lies ahead. Although President Zardari and other senior government functionaries have repeatedly denied any link between the Mumbai attacks and the Pakistani state or any of its institutions, choosing instead the term non-state actors (or as in the case of Zardari, stateless actors), the links between the LeT and the ISI are well documented. The Pakistani establishment and the LeT/JuD have been saying in the past few days that the relationship ended with the ban on the group after the September 11, 2001, attack on the U.S. But this is arguable.

Unlike other groups that demonstrated their anger by hitting back at the state, as for instance in the attempted killing of former President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, the LeT did not challenge its proscription. Experts in Pakistan believe the readiness with which the LeT kept a low profile in Pakistan after shifting its operational command to Kashmir was an indication of its continuing links with the state machinery. In his book Frontline Pakistan, published in 2007, the veteran Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain details the continuing indulgence of the state towards the LeT even after the 2002 ban.

Indias demand that Pakistan take action against the LeT-JuD is virtually asking the Zardari government to take on a child of the ISI and, by extension, the Pakistan Army. Politically, Zardaris task has been made all the more difficult because few opinion-makers are willing to view the LeT or its alias, the JuD, as a problem for Pakistan itself. And for all its claims to represent the will of the people, the Pakistan government today finds itself isolated in its apparent willingness and sincerity to cooperate with India. President Zardaris unpopularity with large sections of the opinion-making elite, particularly over his governments jugglery on the issue of restoring the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, has not helped.

The majority, led by the disproportionately influential electronic media, is dismissive of suggestions that the attacks could have had anything to do with Pakistan and sees the evidence reportedly piling up on the Indian side as just so much anti-Pakistan hype.

In particular, television anchors and other opinion-makers who rightly take pride in their role in the denouement of the Musharraf regime and see themselves as the spearhead of the movement against military rule are now falling back into the willing embrace of the security establishment through their emotional dismissal of the evidence emerging from the Mumbai attack and dubbing it all an Indian conspiracy to defame Pakistan in the world.

In part, this is a reaction to the ham-handed manner in which the Indian television channels began implicating Pakistan soon after the attacks and to the leaks in the Indian press. But thus far, these influential Pakistanis have also demonstrated a stunning inability or unwillingness to get beyond the initial point-scoring to engage with a fundamental issue that India could not have fingered the LeT if the LeT and similar groups did not exist and were not flourishing in this country under more or less state patronage.

With war hysteria and the anti-India mood in Pakistan growing, how much action the Pakistan government is willing to take in order to satisfy India and the world depends on how much leg room it is allowed by the Pakistan Army.

India has more or less accused the ISI of complicity in the Mumbai attacks, suggesting that it wanted to create a major crisis in India-Pakistan relations in order to divert troops from an unpopular war in the northwest and deploy them in the direction of a more traditional enemy in the east. The Indian government has gone so far as to suggest that even the hoax call made to Zardari by someone pretending to be External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and threatening the Pakistan President with a war was in effect the handiwork of the ISI.

Whether or not that is true, the crisis did benefit the Pakistan Army in more ways than one. More than the Mumbai attacks themselves, it was this threatening call that wrecked relations between the two governments. Following an ISI briefing to journalists about the imminent threat of escalation of hostilities by India, the country rallied as one behind the defenders of the nation.

Gone are the questions of just a few months ago against the background of improving relations with India of why Pakistan is spending so much on arming itself against its eastern neighbour. Gone is all the anger against the military for repeatedly skewering Pakistans efforts at nation-building that dominated the airwaves all of last year as the country struggled against the Musharraf regime.

Now any attempt by the government to cooperate with India can only be seen as capitulation to the enemy.

The Pakistan Army has gained in another important way. The crisis has gone some way in building bridges between the militant groups and the Pakistan military. Their historical relationship, which had broken down in several ways, is on the mend. Taliban groups in the tribal areas battling Pakistani security forces offered ceasefires so that troops could devote all their energies on what was built up as a coming war on the eastern front. They even offered to fight alongside the troops against India.

Neck-deep in the turmoil, the civilian government has more than hinted that it may be easier for it to take the necessary steps if the demand came more multilaterally, rather than from India. Pakistans Permanent Representative to the United Nations Hussain Haroon said his government would ban the JuD if it was designated as a terror organisation by the United Nations Security Council.

The question that will follow is whether the Pakistan government, acting on the U.N.s directives, will be able to dismantle the entire infrastructure of the LeT/JuD; or will its actions only lead to a repeat of what happened in 2002, when militant groups banned by the Musharraf regime reappeared and continued to flourish under aliases. Observers, especially in India, will also be watching Pakistan for actions against other militant groups to show it means every word of its commitment that it will not allow Pakistani soil to be used for terrorist activities.

Within Pakistan, a chief concern is that a crackdown against a Punjab-based militant group such as the LeT/JuD could create a new front for the security forces if the group decided to hit back. That would be an important consideration in the decision-making for both the civilian and military power structures in Pakistan. In turn, it will decide if something can still be salvaged out of that ship called India-Pakistan relations.

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