Mumbai Assault Offers Second Chance To Go After Pak Terror

On a hazy December morning seven years ago, a boxy white Ambassador crashed through the outer gates of New Delhi’s Parliament House and slammed into the car of India’s vice president, fortuitously parked to block the building entrance. Five gunmen emerged and began spraying bullets towards the interior, where some of India’s highest-ranking elected leaders were assembled. After half an hour, the attackers had been shot dead by security men, but not before they had killed five policemen, a security guard and a gardener.

The next day, India demanded Pakistan clamp down on Lashkar-I-Taiba (Lit) and Jaish-I-Mohammed (JiM), two terrorist groups suspected in the attack. New Delhi demanded raids on safe houses, leaders captured and financing cut off. Pakistan stood firm, prodding India to deploy troops to its Kashmir and Punjab borders and inciting a tense nuclear stand-off. Fortunately, the parliament attack occurred shortly after September 11, enabling New Delhi to join forces with the United States, which was at the time also strong-arming Pakistan to address its internal terrorism problem.

Responding to the pressure, Pervez Musharraf, the Pakistani president at the time, banned Lit and JIM in Jan 2002 and vowed that Pakistani territory would not be used to launch cross-border terrorism. About 2,000 members of banned militant groups were rounded up, including Masood Azhar, the head of JIM. In March, US agents, aided by Pakistani intelligence, tracked down and captured an al Qa’eda commander, Abu Zubaydah. Several more raids in the ensuing days corralled more than 60 al Qa’eda suspects, nearly half of whom were foreign-born.

But India was soon distracted by domestic religious violence and the United States by Iraq, allowing Pakistan and the terrorist outfits to return to business as usual. Mr Azhar was released a few months after his capture. Lit and JiM shifted military operations to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, where an ambiguous legal status means minimal governmental oversight. Within Pakistan proper, Lit continued to operate under its political wing, Jamaat-ud Dawa – whose Nov 2002 conclave attracted more than 100,000 people. Al Qa’eda regrouped in Pakistan’s remote, lawless tribal areas, gaining operational confidence along with the Taliban and the newly formed Pakistani Taliban.

The result? A rash of monstrous terrorist attacks within Pakistan, including the Dec 2007 assassination of Benazir Bhutto and the recent bombing of the Islamabad Marriott; a growing Taliban insurgency that threatens to topple Afghanistan’s toddler democracy; and, finally, a series of bombings across urban India that culminated in last week’s assault in Mumbai.

The Mumbai investigation is ongoing, but as in Dec 2001, early signs point to Lit and JiM. Both have a recent history of fedayeen attacks within India. Much like Mumbai, these are gun-spraying, kamikaze raids on government sites, police stations or other high-profile targets in which the attackers do not expect to survive.

Both, furthermore, have ties to the Pakistani establishment. Although direct links are hard to pin down, Pakistan’s military has for decades been training and supporting jihadi outfits – which its intelligence service, the ISI, then wields as proxies in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The Pakistani government may not have had any knowledge of the Mumbai assault, but its links to terrorism mean it shoulders some responsibility.

So seven years on, here is a second chance to hack at the roots of international terrorism. Although unpopular at home, where enraged citizens are calling for action, India’s muted response is wise. Any act of aggression would play into the hands of terrorists, who seek to destabilise the region.

Refraining from brinkmanship will also increase international sympathy for India and support for its ensuing antiterrorism efforts – including the support and co-operation of terrorism’s greatest victim, Pakistan, whose president, Asif Ali Zardari, has sworn to act on good evidence. Finally, quick strikes are not the answer; rooting out terrorists in Pakistan will take years, not weeks or months.

Condeleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, arrives in New Delhi today. With Pakistan warning it would shift up to 100,000 troops away from its unstable western border to address a possible Indian threat to the east, the United States is worried about Afghanistan. New Delhi can use this leverage to its advantage and agree not to attack Pakistan or threaten to do so as long as Washington does the following:

a) Pushes for complete transparency from Pakistan, including zero tolerance of terrorist outfits from the Pakistani military and the handing over of terrorist bigwigs, such as JiT chief Hafiz Saeed, the JiM leader Azhar and Dawood Ibrahim, a mafia don who masterminded the 1993 Mumbai bombings that killed more than 250. With Ms Rice already urging Pakistan to follow wherever the investigation leads, this is little more than an extension of current US policy.

b) Embraces Indo-US counter-terrorism co-operation, involving sharing of all intelligence on Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan-based terrorist outfits. Terrorism is a global problem based in the South Asian region – only such co-operation will snuff it out.

In return, India should offer to open negotiations with Pakistan on Kashmir. This may seem like rewarding an alleged tormentor, yet neither Pakistan’s new government nor the majority of its people have any blood on their hands. Further, the broader regional vision of the US president-elect, Barack Obama, which sees a resolution on Kashmir as a key to regional peace, is looking prescient.

Apart from religious differences, Kashmir is the wellspring of Indo-Pak tension and distrust. Both Lit and JIM base their Indian antagonism in Kashmir. And in his 2007 book, Frontline Pakistan: The Struggle with Militant Islam, Zahid Hussain, a veteran Pakistan journalist, had this to say about Pakistan’s broader internal terrorism problem: “As long as the Kashmiri issue remains unresolved, the government seems prepared to embrace it.”

While the sting of recent failure remains fresh, India, Pakistan and the United States must ensure this golden opportunity does not slip away.

-- ran in The National, www.thenational.ae, Dec 3.

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