Date:06/12/2008 URL:

Opinion - Leader Page Articles

Pakistan: between a rock and a hard place

Nirupama Subramanian

For all its claims to represent the people’s will, the Pakistan government today finds itself isolated in its apparent willingness and sincerity to cooperate with India.

Can the Asif Ali Zardari government in Pakistan deliver on its earnestly made promise to “cooperate fully” with India in the Mumbai terror attacks investigation? This is the million dollar question that India and the rest of the world are asking as evidence stacks up against the Pakistan-based Laskhar-e-Taiba. The portents do not look good.

The Mumbai attacks have thrown up in stark relief the reality of two opposing power centres in Pakistan, and the tensions between them. Before this, the civilian democratic government and the Army already clashed once in a significant way, and skirmished twice. The government lost the big one and though it was not humiliated in the other two, it did not exactly win them.

The first time was in July when the government made a move to take over the Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s main intelligence agency headed by a serving Lieutenant-General and controlled by the military, answerable only in name to the Prime Minister. On the intervention of the Army chief, the notification placing the ISI under the Interior Ministry was withdrawn in the dead of night and a clarification issued about the “misunderstanding.”

The second was after President Zardari offered to a glittering Delhi audience, over a satellite conference link, that his country would adopt a “no first-use policy” with regard to its nuclear weapons in any conflict with India. There was no reaction from the Pakistan Army but the top brass are said to be still seething over that remark, which upended the rationale behind Pakistan’s nuclear programme. The Army sees its nuclear weapons as a source of military parity with India, whose conventional military strength is greater. The third time was when a senior Minister announced that the political wing of the ISI had been shut down. The government’s official spokespersons have chosen not to go there, and it is unclear if this has indeed happened.

The Mumbai attacks have now pitched both sides in a “do-or-die” battle. The first round has already played itself out, with the government giving a repeat of its July performance over the decision to send the ISI chief to New Delhi. This time, Mr. Zardari explained it away to the world as a “miscommunication” between Prime Ministers Yousuf Raza Gilani and Manmohan Singh.

Well-documented links

The most important test still 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 Mr. Zardari, “stateless” actors), the links between the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the ISI are well documented. The Pakistani establishment and the LeT’s front organisation, Jamat-ud-Dawah, have been saying in the last few days that the relationship ended with the ban on the group after 9/11. But those with an inside track on this in Pakistan know differently.

Unlike other groups that demonstrated their anger by hitting back at the state, as for instance in the attempted killing of the then President, Pervez Musharraf, the LeT did not challenge the proscription. Experts in Pakistan believe the readiness with which 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. Veteran Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain details the continuing indulgence of the state towards the LeT even after the 2002 ban in his 2007 book Frontline Pakistan.

India’s demand that Pakistan take action against Let-JuD founder-leader Hafiz Saeed virtually asks the Zardari government to take on a child of the ISI and, by extension, the Army. Going by the track record, it is not difficult to see who will emerge the winner of this round.

Politically, the task for Mr. Zardari has been made all the more difficult because few people — they can be counted on the fingertips — are willing to see the presence of militant groups such as the LeT as a problem for Pakistan itself. 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 Zardari’s unpopularity with large sections of the opinion-making elite has not helped.

The majority of the country, led by the disproportionately influential electronic media, has gone into denial mode that the attacks could have had anything to do with Pakistan and is dismissive of the evidence reportedly stacking 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 spearheads 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 India’s “conspiracy” to defame Pakistan in the world.

Role of Indian media

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, they have also demonstrated a stunning inability or unwillingness to get beyond the initial point-scoring to engage with a fundamental issue — India could not have fingered the LeT had the LeT and similar groups not existed and flourished in this country under more or less state patronage.

There is a collective reluctance in Pakistan today to ask why the democratic government that people struggled so hard to bring to office should not crack down on the LeT/JuD, or groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed. Talking heads on television are focussing instead on India’s “home-grown” groups such as SIMI, the Indian Mujahideen, naxalites and northeast groups as the more likely suspects. Even the LTTE has not been spared, either in wilful or inadvertent ignorance of Velupillai Prabakaran’s abject SOS to India the day after the attacks began. Conspiracy theorists are saying the entire attack had a single-point agenda: to take out the Anti-Terror Squad chief Hemant Karkare. It is being described in Pakistan as a “target killing.” In response to India’s “most wanted” list, on the street, on television shows and in letters to newspapers, people are asking why Pakistan should not ask India to hand over Lt. Col. Shrikant Purohit for his alleged involvement in killing Pakistanis aboard the Samjhauta Express.

So complete is the government’s isolation in its willingness to help India that a resolution, adopted at an urgent all-party conference chaired by the Prime Minister to discuss the situation, did not mention Pakistan’s offer of cooperation with India. Rather, the resolution sought to widen the crisis, saying “Pakistan wants good relations with India on the basis of settlement of all outstanding disputes.”

The Pakistan Army has benefited in many ways from this India-Pakistan crisis. For one, the country is once again rallying behind the “defenders of our borders.” Gone are the questions of just a few months ago — against the background of improving relations with India — why Pakistan is spending so much on arming itself against its eastern neighbour. Gone is all the anger against the military for repeatedly skewering Pakistan’s efforts at nation-building that dominated the airwaves all of last year as the country struggled against the Musharraf regime.

All that it took was a media briefing last Saturday by the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence on apprehensions of escalation of military tensions on the India-Pakistan border, and an appeal at the same time for “national unity and calm” by Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. Television channels showed the man on the street expressing solidarity with Pakistani troops, and making statements like “one Muslim is equivalent to four Hindus.” A Punjabi channel even started playing war-time songs from 1965. The exercise of a military option by India would complete the resurrection of the Pakistan Army’s image in the eyes of Pakistanis.

Privately, confidants of the Pakistan Muslim League leader Nawaz Sharif are saying the entire Mumbai episode has stirred up memories of Kargil but publicly even a party with such an uncompromising public posture on the army’s constitutional subservience to the political order came out with all guns blazing against the government for its decision to send the ISI chief to New Delhi.

The Pakistan Army has gained in another important way. The crisis has gone some way in building bridges between the militant groups and the military. The relationship that broke down in several ways is on the mend. Taliban groups in the tribal areas battling the Pakistan security forces have offered ceasefires so that the troops can give their all to what is being built up as a coming war on the eastern front. They have even offered to fight alongside the troops against India.

The minority of opinion-makers that wants the government to make use of the Mumbai attacks to act decisively to dismantle the terror network on its own soil, not just for India, but for the sake of Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan as a modern, civilised and progressive Muslim nation is resigning itself to either President Zardari caving in again to the Army or a confrontation in which the civilian government will die an early death.

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