COMMENTARY
 
Staying the Course, despite Indian Irritant
Weekly Pulse
August 22-28, 2009
India seems to find it difficult to digest Pakistan’s recent successes in combating terrorism. Rather than joining the international community—which has hailed the country’s recent performance in defeating terrorists in Swat and elsewhere, securing the return of hundreds of thousands of internally-displaced persons in areas devastated by conflict, and killing or arresting top Taliban leaders in tribal areas—the leadership in India has once again started creating hype about the terrorists based on Pakistani soil plotting another Mumbai-like attack in India.

On August 17, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh claimed India had information that Pakistan-based terrorist groups are “plotting fresh attacks” against India, while calling on security forces to stay on high alert. “Cross border terrorism remains a major threat ... we have credible information of an ongoing plot of terrorist groups in Pakistan to carry out fresh attacks,” said Mr. Singh, while inaugurating a chief ministers’ conference on internal security in New Delhi. Interestingly, his claim contradicted with Indian Home Minister P Chidambaram’s remarks on the occasion, who said there was no specific threat of an attack against India.

The leadership in Pakistan has been quite excited since last month’s Sharm el-Sheikh breakthrough in Indo-Pak peace process during Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani’s meeting with Prime Minister Singh. That is why it had to take “serious notice” of Prime Minister Singh’s claim, with the Foreign Office summoning Indian Deputy High Commissioner the same day to lodge its protest. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has asked the Foreign Secretary to raise this issue with the Indian High Commissioner.

However, on August 18, the Foreign Minister underscored Pakistan’s desire to “cooperate with India in fighting terrorism…a common enemy.” “If the Indians have any credible information in this regard, they should share it with Pakistan government,” he said at the Foreign Service Academy. In its reaction to Indian prime minister’s statement on August 17, the Foreign Office had also expressed its readiness to “cooperate [with India] fully in pre-empting any act of terror.”

In the aftermath of Mumbai attacks, even though Islamabad refused to accept India’s demand of extraditing the alleged culprits of Mumbai attacks and other “most wanted terrorists,” it accepted that Mumbai attacks were partly planned on Pakistani soil. In February, the country’s law enforcement agencies arrested five individuals who were accused by India of being involved in Mumbai attacks. While they are being tried in court, three more accused are being hunted across the country. Pakistan has repeatedly called on India to provide more information to act against other alleged plotters of Mumbai attacks, considering the information India has provided to it in this respect as “insufficient.”

Ever since the peace process began in January 2004, Pakistan’s successive governments and leaders have been quite excited about it, always expecting India to respond in kind to its peace overtures made repeatedly through diplomatic channels or media interviews. During these years, public opinion in the country has also overwhelmingly supported the peace process. However, each time, an instance of terrorism has occurred in India—whether it was the 2006 bombings of commuter trains in Mumbai or the 2007 bombing of the Samjhauta Express, or the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks—its government and media has reacted instantly to blame Pakistan singlehandedly, thereby derailing the peace process. In each case, in the aftermath of three terrorist attacks in India, it is Pakistan which has gone an extra mile to assure and reassure India that it will do whatever it takes to not let its territory be used for another terrorist attack in India. That is how the peace process is resumed, as the expectation from the breakthrough at Sharm el-Sheikh is.

Barring India, the whole world knows and understands the gravity of the terrorist threat facing Pakistan at present, from terrorist groups whose operations cross national frontiers. They may operate from Afghanistan and conduct terrorist operations in Pakistan. Therefore, it is possible that a terrorist group may be based on Pakistani soil and may conduct a terrorist operation in India—and vice versa. India cannot be an exception in a regional wave of terrorism whose causes and effects are essentially transnational in nature.

Consider Kashmir as an example! As long as this conflict remains unresolved, organizations whose extremist ideology and terrorist behavior are fueled by it may continue to survive, no matter which stringent counter-terrorism act a government takes against them or which creative ‘hearts-and-mind’ strategy it adopts for the purpose.

Of course, now that terrorism has become a survival issue for Pakistan itself, there is no other room left for its security forces except to go after all of those groups and individuals taking innocent lives in the guise of fighting for the cause of an unresolved conflict, including Kashmir. As far back as January 2002, former President Musharraf had chalked out this policy of zero tolerance against groups using the unresolved Kashmir issue to justify their acts of terrorism in India.

But, then again, the practical manifestation of this zero tolerance policy against any Kashmir-specific militant organization allegedly based on Pakistani soil is essentially predicated on an urgent resolution of the 62-year old dispute between India and Pakistan. As long as Kashmir remains unsettled, the groups aspiring to conduct terrorism in India using it as a pretext will continue to sabotage Indo-Pak peace process and stability in South Asia.

More importantly, they will scuttle Pakistan’s counter-terrorism cause. Take the latest Indian claim of terrorist groups based on Pakistani soil preparing for another Mumbai-like terrorist attack in India! Even taking about such a possibility indirectly distracts Pakistan from the important task of fighting domestic terrorism. In recent months, Pakistan can claim several successes in its counter-insurgency campaign against terrorism in Swat, South Waziristan and elsewhere in the country.

During the last two weeks, for instance, the country’s security apparatus has followed up on Baitullah Mehsud’s killing through US drone attack and captured two important leaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, including the capture of its spokesman ‘Maulvi’ Omar from Mohmand agency on Tuesday and Qair Saifullah from Bara Kahu in the suburbs of Islamabad last week.

Since late April, the army and paramilitary forces have waged a successful campaign to flush out Taliban militants in Swat Valley and surrounding areas. They are currently preparing for an all-out assault on South Waziristan to get rid of the remnants of TTP in the area. Hundreds of thousands of people who were evicted from Swat and adjoining regions have returned home. Never before in any recent case of conflict have the internally displaced persons returned home as quickly as they have in the case of Swat. Dozens of countries are involved in realizing the same goal in Afghanistan for several years, yet millions of displaced Afghans have refused to return to their homes from across Afghanistan and its neighborhood for the past several years—and even decades.

Should the government of Pakistan, and its security institutions, consume all of their energies on rescuing the country from terrorism, and helping its people displaced by terrorists? Or, should they concentrate all of their efforts on responding to allegations from India or meeting the unfair demands of its leaders on the so-called cross-border terrorism?

Who will convince India that terrorism poses a common danger and, therefore, it requires a joint response? Our leaders continue to tell their Indian counterparts exactly this, but they don’t bother.

The Indian mindset remains well entrenched in the 90s’ peculiar climate, whereby we indeed may have overlooked or even indirectly assisted the militant uprising in the disputed region of Kashmir, but more than a decade has passed since then and circumstantial realities in Pakistan and the region have changed drastically. Pakistan’s security agencies are as much a target of these terrorists, as its people are. If the Indians still refuse to acknowledge this qualitative shift in the region, making terrorism a common threat requiring a common solution, it’s their problem.

Given that, instead of wasting our energies of assuring and re-assuring the Indians, that we will do everything under the sun to prevent another Mumbai attack occurring in India, our governmental stance should be straightforward: that our first and foremost priority is to secure ourselves against these terrorists. That we will do, whatever we can as a responsible nation, not to let our territory be used for terrorist activity in any country bordering us, including India. But no one, including us, can guarantee that India remains terrorism-free in a region facing a terrorist quagmire from forces operating across the borders.

Therefore, the only option is that India and Pakistan move fast forward in institutionalizing the Joint Counter-Terrorism Mechanism, which was agreed in September 2008 between their leaders, within the framework of Composite Dialogue, and implementing similar counter-terrorism arrangements agreed within the SAARC auspices. More than any other country, India should have celebrated Pakistan’s recent successes against Taliban, whose aspirations for wrecking India inside out are pretty well known. In fact, if India’s current Congress leaders are really serious in extending a helping hand to Pakistan at this critical juncture, then they should urgently reciprocate to several new proposals that our leaders have floated to resolve the Kashmir conflict amicably, to the mutual satisfaction of the two countries and particularly the suffering Kashmiri people.

If New Delhi continues to choose a negative path, consistently distracting Pakistan’s attention away from fighting Taliban and al-Qaeda, then we should not waste our energies unnecessarily in practicing peace diplomacy with India that has no political dividends. Instead, we should better stay the course in eliminating the terror that threatens our survival, in partnership with all of our international counter-terrorism allies—just as we did this week, when our top civil and military leaders met with the visiting US envoy Richard Holbrooke and US commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

From the highest level of US leadership, there is deep appreciation for Pakistan’s counter-insurgency successes, including the ongoing security operation against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in tribal areas and the continuing return of hundreds of thousands of internally-displaced persons to Swat and beyond. We should remain focused on what we need to do to secure our survival against militants and terrorists, and welcome all external assistance and cooperation for the purpose, whether it comes from America, Europe, Saudi Arabia or from any country in the region. If India is not ready to cooperate with us in counter-terrorism campiagn in the region, then that is its own conscious choice, whose conseqences New Delhi alone has to bear in future rather than shifting the blame on Islamabad as it always does.

Access column at weeklypulse.org