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As India-Pakistan Tensions Rise - Extremists stand to gain

by Praful Bidwai, 3 December 2008

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Inter Press Service, December 3, 2008

India Mulling Tough Options Against Pakistan

by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Dec 3 (IPS) - United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in the Indian capital Wednesday to try and soothe nerves frayed by last week’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, but is likely to face an uphill task in defusing mounting suspicion and tension between India and Pakistan.

Many Indian policymakers have adopted a hardened posture against Pakistan in the belief that its state agencies, such as the shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), were behind the attacks, which have killed nearly 200 people, including 28 foreign nationals.

Conservative commentators have unleashed what is fast becoming a media campaign to demand that India takes serious punitive action against Pakistan for the attacks —to the point of striking at terrorist training camps which Indian spy agencies claim exist across the border.

Liberals, who prefer a diplomatic rather than military approach to the issue, and defend freedom and civil liberties, are sharply critical of the conservative hawks. But it is not clear that they can persuade the Indian government to take a reasoned and sober approach.

‘’Nobody is talking of military action against Pakistan... what will be done, time will show,’’ India’s foreign minister Pranab Mukerjee said Tuesday, while speaking at the Indo-Arab Forum.

"If the already fragile India-Pakistan process breaks down, diplomatic and trade relations are frozen, and a conflict breaks out, the consequences will be grim," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor in the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. "Any conflict that breaks out today between India and Pakistan has the potential, the deadly potential, to escalate to the nuclear level and cause unspeakable destruction."

Under pressure to take a tough stand against Pakistan, New Delhi has summoned Pakistan’s ambassador and issued a formal protest. He was told the attacks were carried out by "elements from Pakistan" and "the government expects that strong action would be taken against those elements…"

According to the official spokesperson of India’s ministry of external affairs, the diplomat was told that "Pakistan’s actions needed to match the sentiments expressed by its leadership, that it wishes to have a qualitatively new relationships with India’’.

India has bluntly told Pakistan that it must hand over to it 20 "most wanted fugitives", including notorious gangster Dawood Ibrahim, and an extremist leader (Masood Azhar) who was exchanged for hostages during the hijacking of an Indian aircraft in 1999.

Many of the hawks who advocate a hardline approach are livid at the attacks, which they see as an insult to, or a slighting of, India. They describe it as India’s own "September 11".

They are particularly incensed that gunmen carrying sophisticated arms and explosives could land their boats in Mumbai unhindered and proceed to strike at nine or more sites, including a crowded railway station and two luxury hotels.

Like protestors in Mumbai, who blame India’s political leaders for their incompetence and indifference to security issues, the hardliners too want the armed forces and security agencies to have a prominent role in deciding how to respond to acts of terrorism.

Some of them focus on the alleged involvement of the Pakistani jehadi extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and by implication, Pakistani state agencies, in the attacks.

India’s police agencies, which are investigating the attacks and following the leads emerging from the interrogation of arrested terrorist Mohammed Ajmal Amir Iman (alias Qasab) in Mumbai, claim to have discovered a conspiracy at the centre of which is LeT.

But Pakistani leaders say India has not offered them any specific evidence of LeT’s involvement. What is needed is solid, hard, incontrovertible evidence, which can withstand critical scrutiny, and on the basis of which the attackers and their co-conspirators can be convicted.

The leads pointing to LeT’s involvement must be fully established if the international community is to be convinced and Pakistan’s cooperation is to be secured.

For the first time, though, the Indian authorities have caught an attacker red-handed, who can provide invaluable information, evidence and clues for further investigation.

LeT was created and trained by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. LeT is banned in many countries, including the U.S. The armed wing of the extremist Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad, LeT is alleged to have conducted numerous operations against Indian troops and civilian targets in Jammu and Kashmir since 1993.

It was blamed by New Delhi for a terrorist attack on India’s Parliament house in December 2001, which led to a 10 month-long eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two countries, with a million troops amassed at the border.

"Many of the hawks’ premises are mistaken," argues political scientist Zoya Hasan. "For instance, it is simply wrong to use the 9/11 analogy for the Mumbai attacks. The two are different in context, scale and impact."

Adds Hasan: "The Twin Towers casualties were 16 times higher than in Mumbai. They exposed the vulnerability of the American homeland —for the first time in 60 years. Indians have long recognised their vulnerability, having suffered scores of attacks in the last two decades. 9/11 changed the way the U.S. looks at the world, including Islam. Mumbai probably won’t alter India’s outlook."

Similarly, the assumption that LeT’s involvement necessarily implicates the ISI or the Pakistan Army, or proves the complicity of the civilian government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, is questioned by many former intelligence officials in India.

One of them told IPS on condition of anonymity that "it would be wrong to assume that LeT enjoys no autonomy and the ISI still fully controls it. Making a direct equation between LeT, the ISI, the Pakistan Army and the elected civilian government, and accusing them of having colluded to engineer the attacks, would be way off the mark’’.

This official’s assessment is that Zardari’s government would not want to undermine the peace process with India and risk a costly conflict at a time when Pakistan is in dire economic trouble and volatile thanks to a growing collapse of governance and rising ethnic strife. These are manifested in the current Mohajir-Pushtun clashes in Karachi, and the creeping Taliban takeover of the North-Western Frontier Province.

That conspiracy theory sits ill with Zardari’s recent statement pledging not to use nuclear weapons first against India.

Zardari has often said that Pakistan can ill-afford to unleash against India the forces of extremism which have caused havoc on its own territory.

After all, Pakistan is also a victim of extremists, who claimed his wife Benazir Bhutto’s life, carried out the Sep. 20 attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad, and earlier made two major attempts on former president Pervez Musharraf’s life.

On Tuesday, Zardari told the "Financial Times" that provocation by extremist "non-state actors" poses the danger of a return to war between India and Pakistan, and rhetorically asked: "Even if the militants are linked to LeT, who do you think we are fighting?"

"Many will question his claim that Pakistan is seriously fighting LeT or its parent organisation, Harkat-ul-Dawa," says Achin Vanaik, professor of international relations and global politics and Delhi University. "Pakistan imposed a formal ban on the group, but it reappeared under a different name. Its leader, Hafiz Mohammed Said, is a free man. And HuD holds public meetings, according to many credible reports."

Nevertheless, adds Vanaik, "India should take Pakistan’s offer to help investigate the attacks. Although it has reneged on its earlier offer to send the ISI director-general to India, it still promises to send a senior agency official. India should respond positively to this and try to build alliances with the saner elements in Pakistan who recognise the dangers of fomenting jehadi terrorism."

The alternative would be to drift towards conflict, insecurity and war. If India insists on its demand about turning in fugitives living in Pakistan, there is a danger that Pakistan will not comply. India cannot compel it.

Says Vanaik: "This seriously risks an armed conflict, which neither side can win, but is fraught with grave nuclear danger. The only gainers from an India-Pakistan conflict will be extremists and terrorists — besides the U.S. through a heightened mediatory role. This would only confirm the view that the attacks are a gift from the most criminalised orders of the global Right to its most powerful echelons."

However, there is an honourable and peaceful way out. This is to take the Mumbai case to the United Nations Security Council under Resolution 1373, which requires all states to "refrain from providing any form of support… to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts…", give "early warning to other states" and "deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts..." all on pain of punitive measures.

This multilateral approach, analysts say, would obviate overbearing US influence and must be explored. But it is not clear that Indian leaders would muster the will to do so.