The terror attacks in Mumbai have once again brought to fore a bitter South Asian reality amid the War on Terror: for the third time in a row since the US-led attack in Afghanistan that caused the demise of the Taliban regime there in late 2001, the historically-rooted India-Pakistan conflict is once again endangering the achievements made in international counter-terrorism efforts in the region.
Back in December 2001 and May 2002, in the wake of the attacks on Indian parliament in New Delhi and a bus in disputed Indian Kashmir respectively, which the Indians had alleged were carried out by Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad, the consequent tension in India-Pakistan relations had threatened to divert the international focus, especially that of Pakistan, from the War on Terror to India-Pakistan hostility.
Each time, it was India’s over-reaction to domestic terrorism, and its failure to realize that terrorism had become a common threat to all countries in the region, including Pakistan, which brought the subcontinent close to a nuclear war. And, each time, the crisis was defused by the United States, which did not want any regional distraction from the War on Terror.
This time again, we are seeing this familiar Indian pattern of over-reacting to a domestic terror event, which is surely more dramatic and deadlier than the previous two. In fact, even while the terror episode was still in its initial stage, Indian journalists and government officials had concluded that the attack was sponsored by Pakistan. In India’s perception, any terror act allegedly undertaken by Lashkar-e-Tayyaba automatically implies its sponsorship by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate.
Problem of Perception
It is this perception that is at the core of the current subcontinent crisis. And, until and unless this perception changes, we will continue to have recurrent diversions in the region from the War on Terror to India-Pakistan conflict. Therefore, perhaps the most important issue that needs to be addressed urgently is whether Indian perception about the sources of domestic terrorism is rationally grounded or not. Otherwise, any international bid to defuse another India-Pakistan crisis—such as the one undertaken by US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice—will once again eventually prove futile.
It makes sense to race the roots of Mumbai terror attacks in the 1980s internationally-sponsored jihad against the Soviets, the 1990s India-Pakistan proxy war in Afghanistan and the Pakistan-backed jihad movement in disputed Indian Kashmir, and the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. Whether it is Lashkar-e-Tayyaba or terrorist groups with self-proclaimed names such as Indian Mujahideen or Deccan Mujahideen, they are the product of nearly 30 years of international and regional proxy wars in Afghanistan and the region.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Pakistan, one of the three countries who had recognized the Taliban regime, made a conscious choice of abandoning the Taliban. Obviously, when the Pakistani leadership had opted for this choice then, it knew very well that U-turn on Taliban will not b the last u-turn on its part. Therefore, after the attack on Indian parliament, in January 2002, President Musharraf declared that Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used by any jihadi organization. Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jais-e-Mohammad were consequently banned by Islamabad.
In the spring of 2002, tension between Pakistan and India seemed to recede, but only momentarily, as another terrorist act took place in disputed Indian Kashmir in May, forcing the United States to intervene in the consequent standoff, which may have caused a nuclear war between the two countries. This time, however, the US Cent-com chief General Tommy Franks and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage made sure that not just the crisis is defused but the two countries should be pushed towards a viable peace process.
General Franks reportedly was frank enough to warn the Indians not to raise the stakes in the War on Terror, with which Washington at the time attached great strategic value as it, along with its counter-terrorism allies in Afghanistan, was yet to decimate al-Qaeda infrastructure in the Afghan border regions with Pakistan, and Pakistan was expected then to closely monitor the fleeing al-Qaeda forces from there. To pressure India, the United States and its Western allies as well countries like Japan asked their citizens, including businessmen and tourists, to leave India in the wake of a looming threat of nuclear war.
For his part, Secretary of State Armitage, during his June 2002 visit to India and Pakistan, reportedly conveyed to New Delhi Pakistan’s concrete assurances regarding terrorist threats allegedly emanating from its territory. It was only after India’s acceptance of these assurances, however reluctantly, that the two countries eventually from the spring of 2003 onwards started marching on the path to peace. In January 2004, they began a comprehensive peace process named Composite Dialogue. Since then, until the Mumbai attacks, the peace process has moved forward, despite facing some reversals on the way.
The Peace Process
Thus, the principal reason why the peace process began in the first place was that the broader struggle against al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism that the international community was engaged in fully in the region should not be disrupted by the traditional India-Pakistan rivalry, especially over the issue of Kashmir. That is why Pakistan made so many drastic peace overtures over Kashmir. That is why most of the Confidence-Building Measures that the two sides concluded concerned this well over half century old dispute. That is why right from the start the peace process was considered by both the governmental leaderships to be irreversible.
Many a crises, of much smaller intensity, did occur on the way. However, each time, it was New Delhi trying to make the process reversible and Islamabad sticking to its irreversible nature. And the crisis was created and the process was reversed, even though momentarily, because of India’s over-reaction to acts of domestic terrorism—be it the bombing of Samjotha Express or the terror attack on commuter trains in Mumbai in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Pakistani regime’s response in each instance was the same as it has been in the case of Mumbai attacks now: condemnation of the attack and the offer of joint investigation. For whatever reasons, India never shared the evidence of those attacks, nor held their joint investigations with Pakistan. At least in the case of Samjotha, India’s own findings eventually revealed a connection of the Indian army itself in the terror tragedy.
The Qualitative Shift
Accepted that as part of its “bleed India” strategy in South Asia or “strategic depth” policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Pakistani state establishment—the ISI, to be more precise—may have exploited the post-Soviet wave of jihad movement to destabilize India in disputed Kashmir and establish a pro-Pakistan Taliban regime in Afghanistan. But that is an old story, relevant to the 1990s or perhaps the initial months of the War on Terror in Afghanistan: for it takes time for the old linkages to evaporate overtime.
However, as the above rational account of Pakistan’s consistent u-turns on the jihadi forces, including those which operated in disputed Indian Kashmiri, indicates sufficiently, it has been years since the Pakistani establishment started to perceive a common threat from al-Qaeda-inspired forces—be they Pakistani-Taliban or organizations such as Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.
Had this not been the case, then we should not have seen the sort of suicide-bombing in the past year alone that have claimed several times more innocent lives than the number of those innocent Indians or Afghans put together who have died in terrorist incidents. This week the country was hit by the 50th suicide bombing in the past one year, and the total loss of civilian lives in these and other military assaults reached 6,000. In the process, Pakistan also lost its most charismatic leader Benazir Bhutto.
Yet the leadership in India refuses to acknowledge that overtime a great qualitative shift has taken place in the region, whereby the very forces who are violating the writ of the Pakistani state are engaged in endangering the integrity of India and Afghanistan. These forces pose a common threat to the region and to all countries inhabiting it, including India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Located in this sea of instability, and having as many Muslims as Pakistan has, India cannot be immune from this common danger. Just as there is a minority of militants in Pakistan sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s cause, there may be a minority of militants who have deviated from the path of Islam in India and are sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s cause. Terrorist’s causes and motivations may be different in the case of Pakistan and that of India—a reaction to security operation in tribal areas in the former’s case against a response to unresolved Kashmir issue in the latter’s—but their means, actions and targets are the same.
Beyond Mumbai Attacks
There is, therefore, an urgent need to pursue a common course of action in the aftermath of Mumbai attacks. The current leadership of Pakistan has gone an extra mile in conducting itself responsibly and patently, even amid all sorts of Indian media accusations and threats by Indian officials, including External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherje’s extremely threatening statement about India’s right to take an “appropriate action” against Pakistan “as and when the situation demands.”
A day before this statement was issued, Indian external affairs ministry had lodged a formal protest against Islamabad’s inaction towards terrorist groups operating within that country, after summoning Pakistan's High Commissioner in New Delhi, Shahid Malik.
Earlier India’s deputy home minister Shakeel Ahmad that the terrorists killed in Mumbai encounters were Pakistanis. Mr. Mukherje has continued to up the ante by saying that India was awaiting Pakistan’s response, and that, on the basis of this, it will act decisively.
If Indian media’s knee-jerk response on the Mumbai attacks was not enough, its officials have followed it up with the traditional Indian saber rattling vis-à-vis Pakistan. Little does the Indian leadership realize that this is exactly what the al-Qaeda leadership and its allies want. Nothing will make Osama bin Laden happier than a war breaking out between India and Pakistan over an act of terrorism that has been carried out by people sympathetic to al-Qaeda’s cause.
And this brings us back to the issue of perception. In the course of the past couple of days, Indian politicians and journalists have created so much negativity in domestic public opinion about Pakistan that it is now suicidal for any Indian government, coalition or otherwise, Congress-led or BJP-led, to argue differently.
As per this perception, every little issue of instability, especially the one having terrorist manifestations, that occurs in India, has to be orchestrated or masterminded by the ISI, an organization that for the past several years now is collaborating with all those intelligence outfits concerned with the broader War on Terror in the region. Under this perception, anything that Lashkar-e-Tayyaba has to have support of the ISI.
The fact, however, is that the ISI itself has been in the firing line of al-Qaeda inspired terrorist groups in Pakistan. It is this negative perception that creates a common public view in India about Pakistan as a “terrorist nation.” Even prior to the events of 9/11, India’s self-deluded notions about Pakistan and Pakistanis were characterized by fundamentally flawed fixations and obsessions revolving around the portrayal of ISI as “a state within a state” leading an “epicenter of terrorism.”
The American Mediation
It is good that the United States has acted promptly to defuse the Indo-Pak tension once again. The US intervention is important because the international war against terrorism and the South Asian peace process, which is directly linked with this war, are too important to lose. For the same reason, Pakistani leadership has behaved in highly responsible manner.
During her visit to India and Pakistan, Secretary of State Rice She expressed the need for the two nations to cooperate and pointed out that the focus should be punishment of those responsible for the Mumbai attacks. She urged Pakistan “to cooperate fully, transparently and urgently with the investigation into the Mumbai attacks.”
The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen has also urged Pakistan to investigate all possible links between the Mumbai attacks and Pakistani groups and to broaden its campaign against militants. During his meeting with Pakistani officials, including President Asif Ali Zardari, Admiral Mullen urged Pakistan to “investigate aggressively any and all possible ties to groups based in Pakistan.”
For its part, the Pakistani leadership has assured the US officials its full cooperation in jointly investigating the terror attacks in Mumbai, a stand that it has followed steadfastly since the day the attacks took place and Indians officially started accusing Pakistan. Islamabad’s willingness to be transparent on the matter is clear from the commitment that President Zardari-led government has expressed regarding Pakistan’s unconditional participation in the joint investigating mechanism to find out the culprits of Mumbai attacks and the joint commission to tackle terrorism jointly in the future.
Having said that, however, it is important to understand that what we are basically dealing with in India’s case is not merely an issue of a particular governmental policy; it is, in fact, an issue of a hugely negative perception about Pakistan that Indian politicians, journalists and other opinion leaders have created in the course of a couple of decades.
Given that, whatever international mediation takes place in the days ahead to defuse the current subcontinent crisis, it is should not be confined to bringing about just temporary respite in of crisis, followed by peace process for a while and then back again to another crisis. The Mumbai terror event has some peculiar lessons that only Indians need to learn. Their politicians’ refusal to learn these lessons and, on the basis of that, trigger a drastic perceptual change in the country’s media and public opinion, may make a lot of political sense in the run up to Indian general elections in May 2008, but it will surely push South Asia to the brink of a nuclear war in the near future.
Access column at weeklypulse.org