The Lashkar And The ISI…

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Volteface The army forced Pakistan President Zardari to take an anti-India stand
Volteface The army forced Pakistan President Zardari to take an anti-India stand Photo: AFP

AFTER SIX weeks of confrontational rhetoric, India and Pakistan are edging towards cooperation over Mumbai. But they have a long way to go, because the essential ingredient required for doing so is still notably absent. This is Trust. Pakistan has been seesawing between denying that any Pakistanis were involved, and asserting that those who were will be tried and punished. In the past two weeks, international pressure and the sheer weight of the evidence provided by India has compelled it to move from the former to the latter. But Delhi does not believe that Islamabad will deliver. Its palpable distrust is putting it increasingly at odds with the international community, which believes that another dose of coercive diplomacy will only weaken the civilian government of Yousuf Raza Gilani, and defeat its purpose.

The reason for the widening gap is a growing difference of perception: India is convinced that elements of the Pakistani state — its army and the ISI — actively supported the attack. The West professes not to be convinced. British Foreign Secretary David Milliband’s reference to the need for a settlement of the Kashmir dispute to reduce the number of foci for terrorism that Islamabad has to deal with, has taken this difference to the point of rupture. Feeling increasingly alone, Delhi has heightened the rhetoric of war.

Indiais convinced, elements of the Pakistani state – its army and the ISI – actively supported the attack

The truth may lie somewhere in between. But India’s suspicions cannot be dismissed lightly, for they are not born out of paranoia. New Delhi realised within hours of its commencement that this terrorist attack on Mumbai was very different from its predecessors. Initially, analysts surmised that it was a brainchild of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and its new friends in Al Qaeda, notably the Jemaah-al-Islamiyya of Indonesia. Al Qaeda’s stamp was visible in the decision to hit high-profile targets such as the two five-star hotels and to target American, Israeli and British nationals. It was difficult to believe that the ISI would have stood by and allowed, much less sponsored, an attack that was guaranteed to bring Pakistan’s most important benefactor, the US, down on its head.

Photo: Reuters

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh therefore gave Pakistan the benefit of the doubt and blamed elements within the territory of Pakistan. But as Kasav began to talk, and as it sifted the evidence obtained from the fishing trawler, MV Kuber, and the Taj and the Oberoi hotels in Mumbai, it began to suspect that the Lashkar had been actively helped by the ISI. The preparation was so elaborate, involved so many trainees, and such extended and sophisticated training in so many locations, that Delhi found it harder and harder to believe that the ISI had never got even a whiff of what the LeT was up to.

A second pointer was the terrorists and their minders lack of concern about leaving behind pointers to their identity. Indeed, so  voluminous was this evidence that New Delhi began to wonder whether the ISI had wanted India to know that it had a hand in the killings, in the hope of provoking a response. For everything that the terrorists had carried with them, from pistols and grenades to matches, wheat flour, detergents and tissue paper, were of Pakistani origin. What is more, the terrorists were in continuous communication with as many as seven controllers over the three days. The ISI simply had to know that the whole world would intercept these calls.

Zardari’s reversal showedIndiathat it could not expect cooperation in preventing another LeT attack

The dossier India eventually presented to the world pointed out that some of the telephone numbers the terrorists dialled from the hotels belonged to members of the LeT. What it did not voice was RAW’s strong suspicion that some of the others belonged to serving ISI officers. India had already had some of those numbers because, after the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul, US intelligence had given India telephone intercepts of conversations between the perpetrators and serving ISI officers. It also knew, courtesy of US intelligence, that Zarrar Shah, the alleged mastermind behind the attack, had not only been the main link between the ISI and the Lashkar, but that the ISI had maintained its connection with him after the LeT had been officially banned. Presumably the Indians knew this as well.

Photo: AP

BUT NEW DELHI did not put these suspicions in the dossier because, as a close look at the evidence actually provided by India shows, while the evidence for the involvement of the Lashkar was unambiguous, there was only circumstantial evidence, at best, for the involvement of the ISI.

A close examination of the dossier strengthens this doubt because a great deal of the evidence which suggests that the ISI and the army was spoiling for a confrontation with India can be read in more than one way. For instance, most of the household articles with Pakistani markings were recovered from the Kuber, which had been destined for the bottom of the ocean. Had the terrorists not failed to open the locks to sink the Kuber, none of this evidence would ever have come to light. One of them admitted, in a call from the Taj on the night of November 27, that failing to sink the Kuber had been a ‘big mistake’. This all but rules out the evidence obtained from the Kuber as proof that the ISI wanted India to know of its involvement.

Army chief Kiyani asked Zardari and Gilani to toughen up, deny everything and demand proof

The many phone calls to and from the Taj and the Trident Hotels do show an utter disregard for concealment, but this could have been because, as non-state actors, the terrorists had no stake in hiding their Pakistani links.

Some of the evidence does, however, point in the opposite direction. The lengthy conversations between the terrorists and their controllers concerning the taking of hostages shows that the purpose was not to kill them, Al Qaeda style, but to use them to bargain with the Indian authorities for their freedom. The reason the terrorists were asked to pick out British, American and Israeli nationals could have been that India would be most susceptible to pressure from their governments to strike a deal that would save their lives.

But the controllers’ instruction to kill the hostages if the going got tough also suggests that the hostage taking plan may have been concocted only to make the terrorists believe that they had a chance of returning alive. Their subsequent order to keep the phone line open so that they could hear the hostages die may not have been prompted by fanaticism but a desire to make sure that the terrorists, who must have realised that they were being asked to throw away their last card, actually complied.

What has convinced India that the ISI was nonetheless involved is the Pakistan Army’s behaviour on and after November 27, when the plot began to unravel. The army first showed its hand when, late in the evening of November 27, Pakistani Army Chief General Kiyani forced President Zardari to go back on his decision to send the ISI chief to Delhi. Dr Manmohan Singh had not made this suggestion out of the blue, but only after Shah Mahmud Qureishi, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, who was then in India, had cleared it with Islamabad.

The insecure Pakistan Army’s tunnel vision may see sense in seeking a confrontation with India

For New Delhi, Zardari’s volteface showed not only where the real power lay, but also that it could expect no cooperation from Pakistan in preventing another attack by the Lashkar or the Jaish-e-Muhammad in the future. It therefore fell back on the only course that remained open for putting Pakistan under pressure, short of war. Abandoning 60 years of ‘bilateralism’ it took the issue to the United Nations.

PAKISTANI ANALYSTS have criticised Zardari and Gilani for agreeing to send the ISI chief to Delhi. Apart from its being an affront to Pakistan’s national sensitivities, many experts have argued that the ISI chief’s visit could, at best, have been symbolic and that the real work had to be done by officers lower down the ladder. But on November 27, it was symbols that India was desperately looking for, and that Pakistan needed to furnish if it wished to avoid another confrontation on the border. Had the ISI chief gone to Delhi it would have disarmed not only India, but all the 25 other nations which lost their nationals in Mumbai. The only explanation for Kiyani’s action was that by the evening of November 27, he knew that Kasav had been caught alive and would soon start to sing. He also knew that the Kuber had not been sunk. Delhi was, therefore, the last place he wanted the ISI chief to be when the evidence began to be pieced together.

The army’s subsequent actions also smacked of complicity, if not guilt. Since the attempt to pin the attack on a fictitious new organisation, the Deccan Mujahideen, had failed, it fell back on the second alternative: blanket denial. This was nothing new. It had done this in January 1948 when it sent regular brigades into Kashmir hard on the heels of the Kebaili; it had done this again during the Kargil war in 1999.

But Zardari was still promising all help to India. In fact, he said so repeatedly to Karan Thapar in a TV interview as late as November 29. He simply had to change his tune.

Zardari did so in stages. The first shift came when a request that New Delhi should share its evidence with Islamabad to facilitate investigations rapidly developed into a demand for proof that Kasav really was Pakistani. For New Delhi, which had already supplied Pakistan with all the information it needed to start its investigations through the US and UK, this only came as further confirmation that Zardari had begun to stall. It’s stand therefore hardened, and the task of conveying this was given to Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who duly warned Pakistan on November 30 that all options remained on the table.

When Zardari called a meeting of his Cabinet on November 29 to discuss Pranab’s warning and Pakistan’s response, Kayani asked for a meeting with him and Gilani before they met the Cabinet. According to Dawn, in this meeting the Army chief left the President and Prime Minister in no doubt about his dissatisfaction with the government’s soft stand towards India. Accusing India of meddling in Baluchistan and the FATA region, it asked Zardari and Gilani to toughen up, deny everything and demand proof. Shortly after that, both Zardari and Gilani began to insist that no Pakistanis were involved in the attack. When Kasav asked for consular access, the Pakistan High Commission refused to see him on the grounds that New Delhi had provided no proof that he was Pakistani.

While the Pakistan Government went into denial, first Dawn, then the Guardian’s weekly newspaper, The Observer, and finally Geo TV disclosed that their correspondents had not only identified the Faridkot (in Okara district) from where Kasav hailed, but also obtained the voter ID card numbers of his parents and interviewed them. But it was the massive official attempt to deny Kasav’s very existence, revealed by The Observer, that convinced New Delhi that Pakistan’s military establishment had been involved in the attack. The sheer size of the operation, which was apparently launched as early as November 27, confirmed that the military, if not the civilian government, had something to hide.

While the Pakistan Government went into denial, first Dawn, then the Guardian’s weekly newspaper, The Observer, and finallyGeo TV disclosed that their correspondents had not only identified the Faridkot (in Okara district) from where Kasav hailed, but also obtained the voter ID card numbers of his parents and interviewed them. But it was the massive official attempt to deny Kasav’s very existence, revealed by The Observer, that convinced New Delhi that Pakistan’s military establishment had been involved in the attack. The sheer size of the operation, which was apparently launched as early as November 27, confirmed that the military, if not the civilian government, had something to hide.

Today, the suspicion of the Pakistan Army’s involvement has set in stone. For it seems willing to stop at nothing to shield the terrorists: not the humiliation of the President of the Republic, not the humiliation of the leader of the Opposition, Nawaz Sharif, (who mysteriously retracted his initial sarcastic remarks about the security blanket that the government had thrown around Faridkot), and not the summary dismissal of National Security Advisor Mahmud Durrani for admitting that Kasav was a Pakistani, despite the fact that he was one of the army’s own.

The question whose answer still eludes New Delhi is why is the Pakistan Army indulging in such dangerous brinkmanship? If there is a cogent explanation, it probably lies in the Pakistani Army’s growing desperation to get out of the Afghan war, and its growing conviction that the new, weak and divided civilian government does not have the nerve to extricate the country from it. Generating a confrontation with India may look like the only way to force the government’s hand.

THE NEW Afghan war has gone on for seven years and has become a war without an end. This was inevitable once the purpose of the war had been defined not as the defeat but physical eradication of the Taliban regime. This change of objective eliminated the possibility of negotiating a peace. In the years that have followed mounting civilian casualties in endless military operations have turned the Pushtoons as a whole against the US, NATO and, inevitably against Pakistan.

Today, not only the FATA but seven districts of the NWFP are more or less out of the government’s control. But Pakistan continues to be drawn ever deeper into the war, for in January 2008 NATO responded to the power vacuum that had emerged in Islamabad after President Musharraf relinquished his uniform by increasing its aerial and remote controlled raids upon the FATA and steadily increasing pressure upon Pakistan to deploy more ground troops in support of the NATO offensive.

To the Pakistan Army, the future looks even more grim than the present. US President Obama is already committed to a sharp escalation of the war in Afghanistan. But Afghanistan is not Iraq, and Pakistani strategists have good reason to suspect that a ‘surge’ there will not meet with even the limited success that it had in Iraq. On the other hand, intensified conflict in Afghanistan will push still more Taliban into FATA, lead to still more NATO raids and more urgent demands that Pakistan involve itself more fully in the war to neutralise them.

The Pakistan Army does not know how long such a war will last; it does not even know whether it can be won. But it does know that more and more Pakistani soldiers will be killed; that the Pushtoons will identify the Pakistani state more and more closely with the West, and finally, that a fifth of its own army are Pushtoons.

One suspects that the army felt reasonably safe so long as Musharraf was both President and army chief. It probably still felt reasonably secure when he was the civilian President of Pakistan. But once he was pushed out of power, it may have decided that it had to fend for itself. It could be that the plan to create a confrontation with India was hatched around then.

The first ISI inspired terrorist attack occurred not within India, but in Kabul on July 7. The attack occurred a month before Musharraf resigned, so it may have had his consent. The Pakistan Army probably decided to take over the Lashkar’s plan for the Mumbai attack when India failed to respond militarily to the outrage in Kabul. That may be the reason why the attack itself was postponed from September to November of last year.

In the Pakistan Army’s tunnel vision, provoking a confrontation with India by backing terrorist attacks may make very good sense. All the while that Pakistani troops have been killing their Pushtoon brethren, India has been piling up bunny points in Afghanistan by building schools, hospitals and roads. If this continued, it faced being caught in a nutcracker between Afghanistan and India. To keep India out of Afghanistan has remained its first objective — even 9/11 and its slow descent into the Afghan quagmire has not changed that.

Pakistan has tried repeatedly to persuade the US to allow it to strike a deal with the Taliban and control it for the West in the future. That deal would have required allowing the Taliban to return to Kabul, but with a Pakistani halter in their mouths. The plan found few takers — mainly because no one trusted Pakistan to keep its nuclear weapons out of the Taliban’s hands. Creating a military confrontation with India was the next best alternative. The only trouble is: it leads to a war that, one way or another, Pakistan can only lose.

Jha is a Delhi-based columnist and author of Kashmir 1947: The origin of a dispute

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