Prem Shankar Jha , Senior Journalist
THE THREAT had been hanging in the air for almost a year. Now, it is out in the open. In Madurai on October 31, Home Minister, P Chidambaram warned Pakistan that if there was another terrorist attack from that country, India would retaliate “very strongly.” “I have been warning Pakistan not to play games with us. The last game should be the Mumbai attacks. Stop it there,” he told his audience, in Tamil.
Implicit in his statement was the assumption of Pakistan’s complicity in the terrorist attacks that India has suffered, including the attack on Mumbai. His belief is easy to understand. Pakistan has been supporting low-intensity conflict in India ever since the rise of the Khalistan movement in Punjab. It gave sanctuary to Sikh militants and allowed the first and second Panthic committees to plan their attacks from Lahore and Faisalabad. In the eighties, it began fomenting an insurgency in Kashmir. In the late nineties, it unleashed the Lashkar-e-Taiba on the Valley, and while it may not have initiated the attacks on suburban trains in Mumbai and the string of attacks in Jaipur, Ahmedabad, Varanasi, Surat, Bengaluru and elsewhere in the past seven years, it has not discouraged them either. Finally, there is little doubt that even if it did not actually plan the lethal attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008, it directly encouraged it.
But is the assumption that the Pakistan state is turning a blind eye to terrorists planning attacks on India still valid? Has nothing changed in Pakistan in the past year? Complicity implies at least partial control. Are we sure that the ISI still controls the non-Afghanistan related terrorist groups and is still encouraging attacks on India?
Answering this question has become urgent because if it is no longer encouraging attacks on India, if terrorism is truly out of control in Pakistan, then Mr. Chidambaram may have provided the terrorists with the strongest possible motive to attack India once again. A close look at what is happening in Pakistan shows that he has done precisely that.
The truth is that just about everything has changed in Pakistan. With every passing day, Pakistan is beginning to look more and more like Iraq. Throughout the month of October, there has been a bombing — more often that not, a suicide bombing — every other day in principal cities of the country: Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Peshawar. One on October 9 took 49 lives; another on the October 12 left 41 dead, three on the same day in Lahore left 19 dead, including 14 soldiers.
There have been suicide bombings in the International Islamic University at Islamabad — clearly because it encourages a brand of scholarship that Al Qaeda does not like, in the aeronautics complex in Rawalpindi and a hostage-taking at the Army headquarters itself in Rawalpindi. Even as I write, 35 more people have lost their lives on the first working day of November, in a suicide attack on retired civil servants and military personnel outside a bank in Rawalpindi – the headquarters of the Pakistan army.
To any student of Pakistan, it is obvious that it’s a state and society are under siege – a siege, which in the past nine months, has intensified. In the last week of October only, 373 people lost their lives, including 117 civilians and 43 members of the security forces. In the previous week, the tally was 324 and in the week before that, 369. In short, in just three weeks, almost 1,100 persons lost their lives. Of these, 300 were ordinary civilians. Almost a hundred, were members of the Pakistani security forces.
This sudden jump in fatalities has followed the Pakistan Army’s launch of operation Raah-e-Nijat on October 16 – an all-out assault on the Tehrik-e-Taliban’s stronghold in South Waziristan. It is Islamabad’s response to a sharp rise in terrorist attacks in 2009. Till October 18, there had been 152 terrorist attacks, which killed 118 civilians and 77 security force members. Only 34 terrorists had been killed.
RAAH-E-NIJAT IS an all-out ground and air offensive that has killed — according to the Army’s probably exaggerated tally — more than 600 terrorists already. But Raah-e-Nijat may be creating more problems than it will solve. First reports have suggested that the Pakistan army launched its offensive with 28,000 regular troops. Even if the number has been augmented, this is simply not a large enough force to defeat the TTP decisively, let alone establish control of the mountainous South Waziristan.
Mr. Chidambaram may have given terrorists the strongest possible motive to attack India
The Pakistan army knows this, so it has been forced to use the air force. Bombing is both destructive and indiscriminate. It has therefore already created two million fresh internal refugees and killed no one knows how many innocents. What is worse, there are indications that the complete absence of surprise has allowed most of the Taliban to slip away into Afghanistan or other parts of FATA.
Beginning with the operation in Swat, Pakistan has been in a state of war. This has begun to change its perceptions of who its enemies really are. The evidence that the army recovered from its Swat operation showed that the interconnection between the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the Punjabi militants whom the ISI had earlier nurtured is far deeper than Islamabad had suspected. This has been confirmed by the nationwide retaliation by the terrorists against its assault on the TTP. If the Pakistan army had any illusion that it could continue to fight one set of terrorists while nurturing and controlling another, it has been in the process of shedding it for some time.
The most unambiguous indication of a change in Pakistan — no doubt aided by quiet warnings from us and the Americans — is that there has not been a single terrorist attack since Mumbai. For five years prior to that, there had been one roughly every three months. What is more, Pakistan is still pushing ahead with the cases against the seven persons implicated in the Mumbai attack. It is doing this in the teeth of hostile public opinion and death threats sent to the judges and prosecutors in the Punjab courts before whom they will be arraigned.
Twenty years ago, similar threats had completely paralysed the judicial system in Punjab to the point that the lone judge who handed out a minor sentence to a terrorist for a capital crime lost his life a few months later. But the home ministry’s memory is conveniently short. Less excusably, so is the collective memory of our media.
If Pakistan falls to the terrorist onslaught, India will be Al Qaeda’s next victim
After having been at the receiving end for five decades, it is tempting to relish watching Pakistan being hoist on its own petard. But this is a luxury we cannot afford. For if Pakistan succumbs to the terrorist onslaught and become Al Qaeda’s largest and most powerful base, we will be its next victims.
One needs only to consider what is likely to happen in Afghanistan to see how perilously close the whole of South Asia is to Armageddon. When the US and NATO leave, as they are certain to do in the not too distant future, the Taliban will declare victory over a superpower for the second time and will proclaim the invincibility of its version of Islam. Many of the redundant Taliban fighters will come to the aid of their allies in Pakistan. At the same time, there will be a huge influx into the Al-Qaeda-linked tanzeems in Pakistan. Pakistan will be forced to accept another peace on the Taliban’s terms. It will also have to find alternative ‘employment’ for the tens of thousands of gun-toting militants who will now have no war to fight. There are no prizes for guessing where Al Qaeda will send them next.