26/11: Nawaz Sharif told U.S. Senators that claim call to Indian TV channel was the clincher

While some influential Pakistanis believed that “south Indian” men had carried out the Mumbai attacks and lashed out at India for blaming Pakistan, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif seemed to have no doubts right at the beginning that the attackers were Pakistani.

A cable (181951: confidential) sent by Acting Principal Officer Clinton Taylor of the U.S. Consulate in Lahore on December 9, 2008, describes how the Pakistan Muslim League (N) leader told a visiting delegation of U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham that he had listened to the phone call made by one of the attackers to an Indian TV channel, and even though the individual claimed he was Indian, he had heard a Pakistani accent.

At that December 6 meeting, Mr. Sharif showed none of the ambivalence about the origin of the attackers that he later resorted to in keeping with the mood of denial in Pakistan.

“The people involved were from this country — I am convinced,” Mr. Sharif is quoted as saying. “We must take strictest action against those elements.” Once India produced concrete evidence, “we should proceed whole hog,” he declared.

In doing so, Mr. Sharif was perhaps also trying to clear the U.S. perception of him as a politician with links to Islamists, and therefore not a trustworthy partner in the “war on terror.”

The road to Islamabad goes through Washington, the saying goes in Pakistan. The former Prime Minister seems to have been only too aware that to secure his prospects as a future leader of the country, he needs to keep on the right side of the U.S.

He told the senators that his party had acted responsibly with the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to fight terrorism.

He recounted that former President Pervez Musharraf had exiled both him and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto, and he was “amazed when President Bush provided his support for a dictator.”

Mr. Sharif recounted that during his stints as Prime Minister he had offered Pakistan's support for the Gulf War and discussed in great detail with U.S. President Bill Clinton how to deal with extremist forces in Afghanistan. “Who could be more committed to fight against terrorism?”

He recalled his part in signing the Lahore Declaration with Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On the other hand, General Musharraf had launched the Kargil operation, which Mr. Sharif described as “the biggest blunder he committed.”

His party had refrained from using India to score political points, he said, adding that the PML(N) had strongly condemned the Mumbai attacks, and if there was evidence to prove Pakistani links, “we must take action.”

The people responsible for Mumbai, Mr. Sharif said, “are also operating in Pakistan — we face those forces here.” He mentioned the assassination of Benazir Bhutto the year before, his own narrow escape from bullets fired at his election rally on the same day as her killing, the Marriott bombing in September 2008, and a ghastly bombing in Peshawar a day before his meeting with the senators.

Mr. Sharif underlined his commitment to help the government “eradicate this menace.”

However, some members of his party did not share the same views.

Bryan Hunt, principal officer at the U.S. Consulate, in a cable sent on December 3, 2008 (181158: confidential), detailed a conversation with Ali Haroon Shah, PML(N) member and a former legislator in the provincial assembly, who said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has started a “blame game” before any evidence appeared. He said India had many insurgent groups, any of which could have carried out the attack.

Mr. Hunt wrote that he had met Lahore High Court Judge Bilal Khan. The judge welcomed the December 1 statement from the White House saying the U.S. had found no evidence to indicate that the Pakistan government had planned the attacks. The judge took this as absolving “all Pakistanis of responsibility,” Mr. Hunt wrote.

The diplomat clarified to the judge that while there was no indication that the Pakistan government had a hand in the attacks, groups operating in Pakistan, specifically in Punjab, were the most likely culprits.

A senior Lahore lawyer who was present at the meeting told him that from the photographs, the attackers “looked south Indian.”

With some foresight, Mr. Hunt commented that “the innocence felt by most Punjabis will make it difficult to crack down on Pakistani perpetrators.”

(This article is a part of the series "The India Cables" based on the US diplomatic cables accessed by The Hindu via Wikileaks.)