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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pakistan’s Hour of Reckoning

By Zahid Hussain

A Common Enemy
Pakistan faces a huge dilemma with mounting allegations that the perpetrators of the Mumbai carnage were trained in, and sent on their mission from, Pakistan. There is increasing pressure on Islamabad to take immediate action and arrest Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, formerly Lashkar-e Toiba (LeT), the group which has been accused of masterminding the attacks. Failure to act could lead to some steps by the international community, under the UN Security Council, even if the possibility of military strikes by India is ruled out. But any compliance carries a risk of public backlash, which the present civilian government appears least capable of dealing with, leaving it in a serious quandary. Most observers agree that the situation unfolding in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks presents the most serious challenge to the state of Pakistan since 1971.
There is no clarity yet as to how the government is going to respond to the pressure, but most observers agree that it has to do something to satisfy international opinion, which appears to be on the side of India. What worries the international community is the rising influence of the militants which not only threatens Pakistan’s stability, but also imperils regional security.
Although India has not accused the Pakistani government of complicity, it claims there is enough evidence to prove that the attacks were planned and executed by certain elements in Pakistan. The Indian authorities maintain that the 10 attackers, who came from Karachi, had been receiving constant instructions from their handlers in Pakistan.
They named Yousuf Muzzamil and Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi of the LeT as master-minding the attacks against India’s commercial and financial capital, which killed more than 170 people. The evidence is apparently based on the alleged confession of Ajmal Amil Kasab, the only captured attacker.
According to Indian investigators, Kasab had identified himself as a 24-year-old Pakistani from the village of Faridkot, in the southern part of the Pakistani province of Punjab. According to them, Kasab, and the nine gunmen who were killed in the attacks, had been chosen from a group of 24 who had undergone rigorous training, overseen by an ex-army officer. They were prepared by being shown violent footage from Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine. Evidence of a Pakistan link also included grenades found on the gunmen, which were supposedly manufactured in Pakistan, and satellite telephone calls from a handset used by the militants, according to Indian police. Indian investigators claim that the handlers in Pakistan were constantly sending SMSes to Kasab, even after he had been captured by the Indian police.
The evidence is disputed by Pakistan. There is still a mystery surrounding the identity of Kasab who, according to the Indian police, came from Faridkot village in Okara district. Pakistani officials maintain that they could find no trace of a person fitting the description of Kasab, and said that there were three villages called Faridkot in the Punjab and that they did not know to which one the Indian authorities were referring. But the US and Britain appear to be convinced about LeT’s role in the attack. Fingers are also being pointed at some elements within the ISI.
As tension builds up, India has handed over to Pakistan a list of 20 people, demanding that they be extradited. Among those wanted by India are Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, the head of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organisation of the LeT, and several other members of the group who, Indian authorities allege, had organised and trained the attackers.
Among those wanted by India is also Dawood Ibrahim, the alleged mastermind of the 1993 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. The former Mumbai mafia don is said to be living in Karachi’s Defence Housing Society under huge protection. India has, for long, been demanding his extradition, but Pakistani authorities deny that Ibrahim is on their soil. Some years ago his name surfaced when his daughter was getting married to the son of former Pakistani cricket captain Javed Miandad. The wedding took place in Dubai. It is not clear whether he is wanted in connection with the latest Mumbai attacks.
The situation has become more complicated after the Indian government rejected Pakistan’s offer of a joint investigation mechanism. The Pakistan government had offered put together a team which would help with the investigations.
Pressure is mounting on Pakistan from India and the United States to take action itself against those militants who are allegedly involved in the Mumbai attacks. President Asif Ali Zardari has conceded that “ non-state actors” could be involved in the incident. However, there is growing skepticism whether his government has the capacity to take on the militants, who have gained in strength and present an existential threat to Pakistan itself. Any action taken by Pakistan against LeT leaders at this point could be seen as surrendering to Indian pressure and provoke intense public backlash. It will also create problems in the military, which is already engaged in a bloody war against militants in the tribal areas and parts of the NWFP.
Pakistan has threatened to wind up its war against Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants and redeploy its troops to the border with India – a move which could have huge consequences for the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. A senior Pakistani military official warned that the war on terror would not be Pakistan’s priority if it felt threatened by India. “We will not leave a single troop on the north-western border if we are threatened by India,” said the security official.
Pakistan has deployed more than a 100,000 troops on its border with Afghanistan and is fighting a bloody war in the lawless tribal areas which have become the main battleground for Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants.
More than 35,000 of these troops are engaged in combat in the Bajaur, Waziristan and Swat regions as militants try to extend their influence to other areas in the NWFP. Observers agree that the withdrawal of troops will provide a huge space to the militants, and undermine Pakistan’s own war against Islamic militancy.
A major problem for Pakistan would be how to crack down on the LeT and its parent group Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which has gained in strength even though it was proscribed in 2002. Despite the ban on the LeT, Hafiz Saeed continues to address public rallies, exhorting Muslims to join the jihad against India and the US. Last month, a party rally in the Punjab town of Muridke drew more than 200,000 people.
Most observers agree that Pakistan does not have the capacity to deal with domestic extremists, plus the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in the northern areas, unless the tensions with India are resolved. The country is facing a serious economic crisis and terrorist attacks pose the gravest threat to the country’s internal security. Consequently, any move by India at this juncture to further escalate the situation could fulfill the worst nightmare of Pakistan falling into the hands of radicals.
Pakistan will have to act swiftly against militants for its own survival, but the international community should also realise that pushing Pakistan into the corner will have disastrous consequences. There is no doubt about the fact that Pakistan is besieged by terrorist groups that can use its soil to mount attacks on neighboring countries. But the international community will have to tread a cautious path and help Pakistan fight the menace, instead of putting the country in the dock.

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