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Mumbai terror attacks should be the turning point

by Asma Jahangir, 3 December 2008

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Daily Times, December 3, 2008

A turning point

The recent Mumbai terror attacks should be the turning point. Governments of the region are challenged to support an open and transparent investigation in order to identify and prosecute the masterminds behind such carnage. They must have the moral courage to face the truth

The recent carnage in Mumbai is terrifying. Indians are entitled to be angry, hurt and disgusted. The government of India has alleged that initial evidence indicates that some of the terrorists came from a ‘neighbouring country’. Even though the prime minister of India has so far not accused the government of Pakistan of being directly involved in the attacks, it is apparent who the ‘neighbour’ is. The Pakistani foreign minister and others have so far reacted responsibly. To his credit, he admonished journalists who tried to downplay the tragedy or who shirked away any need for alarm.

Yet the media on both sides is full of jingoistic messages. Some Indians want revenge and even went so far as to urge their government to bomb Pakistan. A few voices in India have cautioned against a call for revenge and have suggested looking deeper into the failure of the security system in India itself. They are pushing for effective diplomacy to be deployed so that Pakistan’s rulers are encouraged to take action against those who are using their country as a launching pad for terrorist activities.

Those in India who want reprisals against Pakistan are falling into the very trap that the terrorists and their allies have set for them. It is no secret that both the terrorists and their patrons within sections of the Pakistani intelligence community want a disengagement of the military against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in north-western Pakistan. But, despite all efforts made through peace deals with the militants, Pakistan’s security forces have neither been able to convince them to de-escalate violence, nor have they been able to persuade the current American administration to loosen the grip on the war on terror. As such, they are caught in a war they are most reluctant to fight. Therefore the Pakistani military is understandably desperate to end the conflict in FATA and Swat.

It also suits the militants to distract the military on all sides, so that they have a free hand to consolidate their power base within Pakistan. Therefore the Indians must take note that the risk of a better organised force of militants will not only endanger the people of Pakistan but may also create havoc in India in time to come.

Some of the reaction in Pakistan is mind-boggling. Several militant organisations have issued public statements rejecting all claims that Pakistan’s territory was in any way used to prepare the Mumbai attacks. Some, like the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, have claimed that the “terror attacks in Mumbai were part of a conspiracy to defame Pakistan and the Mujahideen”. The TTP has warned India against attacking Pakistan and assured Pakistanis that in such an eventuality the Mujahideen would “fight shoulder to shoulder with the armed forces and the people of Pakistan”. Through this statement, they want to appear as having arrogated to themselves the authority to respond on behalf of Pakistan and to appear as the saviours of its people. Ironically the TTP is fighting Pakistan’s military in the tribal areas and is accused of having killed hundreds of Pakistanis in the most inhumane manner.

Senior security officials are widely quoted in the press as warning that the next 24 to 48 hours are crucial. One of them is quoted to have suggested that if India escalates tensions, then the war on terror will no longer be their priority and as such Pakistani troops will have to be moved from the eastern to the western border of Pakistan. Naturally, while that may be the case, it would also be the responsibility of the security forces to keep equal pressure on all borders, so that civilians are protected.

The statement, however, shrugs away any responsibility for protecting people from the militant groups operating in the north of the country. This belies all claims by the present and previous governments that military actions against the militants were being carried out purely in the interests of Pakistan and to protect its citizens, rather than at the behest of the United States. It is deeply worrying to imagine that those who are supposed to protect civilians from the violence of the militants seem reluctant to do so.

Are they not convinced or aware of the urgency? Or are they simply not concerned? Do they have a game plan unknown to the people of Pakistan and their political representatives?

A spokesperson of the PMLN lambasted the government for ‘bowing’ to India by agreeing to send the director-general of the ISI or his representative to India. In the past, the PMLN has itself been severely critical of the role of the ISI and supported calls for reforms within it. Regrettably, at this critical moment, the opposition is dangerously exploiting the situation.

In contrast to the PMLN statement, LK Advani, the hawkish leader of the opposition in India, has for now assured all support to the Indian prime minister. Perhaps we need to learn a few lessons of how the opposition can also be constructive in times of national emergency. After all it is not the military but the representatives of the people who are entitled to take policy decisions. It must be the politicians rather than the intelligence agencies of both countries that make policies regarding foreign affairs. Surely the head of the ISI or its representatives do not carry a stature beyond that of those representing the people of Pakistan. The PMLN will make a grave mistake by arrogating a grand status to the ISI, as this will undermine the powers of any civilian government. After all, joint dialogues, investigations and actions that resolve tensions should be encouraged rather than be taken as an affront to national dignity.

Most sections of society within Pakistan seem to be in a state of denial regarding the allegations made by the Indian authorities. They are not willing to accept even a remote possibility of any connection between Pakistan and the terrorist attacks that took place in Mumbai last week. At the same time, any attack within Pakistan is treated differently. A large number of people have openly blamed militant groups operating within Pakistan and rogue elements within our intelligence agencies for acts of violence carried out in Pakistan. Yet, we are not willing to grant the same significance to any claims made by neighbours against the very same elements that admittedly are under insufficient control.

A discredited retired Pakistani general took on an aggressive tone on public television against any claims made by the Indians of the involvement of militants operating within Pakistan. Without waiting for any evidence, he emphatically concluded that the attacks in Mumbai were solely carried out by indigenous Indian militants. No doubt, an attack of this nature cannot be carried out without local complicity, but to rule out any link to any of the militant groups operating within Pakistan is unrealistic.

The general explained that militancy was rife in India because of an environment of ‘suffocation’. The same gentleman has on several occasions in the past pleaded for sympathy and understanding for the growth of militants in Pakistan on the justification that the root causes of all this was poverty and neglect. In his view, Indian militancy stems from ‘suffocation’, while the Pakistani one is a result of being victims of economic deprivation.

A balanced and transparent approach is urgently needed. It is clear that India too needs to look into the effectiveness of its own security forces. However, that does not absolve the government of Pakistan from ensuring that its territory is not used as a breeding ground for militants, where they can plan, train and carry out terrorist activities. It is in no one’s interest to let a handful of organised militants keep the entire region hostage and polarise its populations.

The recent Mumbai terror attacks should be the turning point. Governments of the region are challenged to support an open and transparent investigation in order to identify and prosecute the masterminds behind such carnage. They must have the moral courage to face the truth and have the determination to inform the public accordingly. The current and persistent state of insecurity should be a wake-up call for the region. Governments should reinforce their commitment to dismantle all forms of international terrorism growing within the region.

India and Pakistan have both experienced terrorism. It is not new to them. Yet, the implications of recent international terrorism are far more complex and damaging to any society. The jihadi groups that are suspected of having carried out the Mumbai attacks are a well organised and networked with a strategy that is mercilessly used to extend their political agenda in the name of religion. It was apparent that they saw an opportunity to attack now, when the world was involved in a financial crisis and the United States distracted because of a political transition period.

The carnage in Mumbai has several advantages for them: they received international attention, they were able to demoralise those who challenge them, they succeeded in creating a wedge between the improving relationship of India and Pakistan, they brought themselves into a better bargaining position before the Obama administration takes over and created a precarious situation for the fragile civilian government of Pakistan.

The writer is Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan