Unless New Delhi and Islamabad are able to find some common ground on terror, their trust deficit cannot be overcome. In the larger context, they along with Washington will each be left holding two sides of a terror triangle; missing pieces of the deadly puzzle that holds all our futures hostage.
Bridging the trust deficit — the task handed down to Foreign Ministers S.M. Krishna and S.M. Qureshi by their Prime Ministers is indeed a daunting if not an impossible one. Yet, it is a task the two sides would better prepare for if they come closer in their understanding of the terms involved: primarily, terror. It's no secret that the trust deficit both sides refer to is euphemism for India's belief that Pakistan supports and nurtures the very terrorist groups that seek to destroy India. And to Pakistan's belief that India sees only its own pain, not the destruction caused by daily attacks to Pakistanis, adding to a general sense of injustice on issues like Kashmir and Water. Added in the mix, is the United States, with its daily push on Pakistan to act against groups that target the U.S., but not with the same dedication against groups that threaten India. The trust deficit is, as a result, a wide chasm that exists between all three countries when it comes to their definitions of fighting terror.
Interestingly the groups they are fighting today were once equally divided. Broadly put, these groups can be categorised as the Taliban (Afghan and Pakistani, including TTP — Tehrik e-Taliban-Pakistan), the Punjabi Taliban (comprising the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Jhangavi and the Sipah-i-Sahiba) and the Kashmiri Jihadis (Hizbul Mujahideen, Harkat-ul Ansar, etc.). In the past decades they have differed on ideology (Deobandi vs Ahl-e-Hadith), and on targets (anti-India vs. anti-U.S. vs. anti-Shi'a). But today, each of them has found ways of linking to each other and up to the larger Sala'fi grid of Al-Qaeda — in terms of training, funding and logistics. Yet the U.S. continues to focus on the Taliban, India on the Kashmiri groups and the LeT, while Pakistan, a state that was the puppet master to these groups is finding itself strangled by the very strings it once wielded — fighting the Pakistani Taliban, but not the Afghan Taliban, and refusing to act in a concerted manner against the Punjabi Taliban.
For India, terror's blind spot has meant a refusal to look for larger players in big attacks: from the IC-814 hijacking of 1999 to Mumbai 26/11 in 2008. In Mumbai, for example, Ajmal Kasab and the others were no doubt members of the LeT, but the choice of some of their targets: the Chabad House, western hotel guests, as well as their access to technology should have pointed our investigators to their Al Qaeda links more closely.
Perhaps there were none, and perhaps we'll never know. But shying away from the threat of groups other than the ones that openly challenge India will leave India unprepared for the next threat, just as underplaying the threat the LeT poses to the U.S. will cost America as well. Stephen Tankel — author of the soon to be released Storming the World Stage - The story of Lashkar e Taiba” — details the close operational links between the LeT and Al Qaeda's global jihad today. “Support takes two main forms:,” writes Tankel, “as a training provider or gateway to Al-Qaeda, and as a facilitator for attacks in western countries. Lashkar trains not only on its own, but with other groups in the FATA. Some of its members are believed to be instructing at other groups' camps as well. The organisation also collaborates on infiltrating fighters into Afghanistan and on other logistical matters related to that front.”
For Pakistan, whose ISI has been closest to the Lashkar and other members of the Punjabi Taliban — the signs of the new collaboration should be the most worrying. During the siege of the Lahore police academy in March 2009 and the strike on the Sri Lankan team before that, the gunmen were heard speaking ‘Seraiki' (South Punjab dialect) with each other. The truck that detonated and destroyed the Marriott Hotel in 2008 carried a Jhang licence plate, while the explosives were sourced to Waziristan. In fact, the suicide bomber caught alive during the GHQ attack in Rawalpindi in October 2009, and also wanted for the Marriott bombing, was perhaps the perfect example of terror's threads tying together. Col. Usman left the Pakistan Army medical corp in 2006 to join the Jaish e Mohammed in Kashmir, and trained with the TTP to carry out the GHQ attack in retaliation for drone bombings in Waziristan. Pakistani magazine Newsline estimates that between 5,000-10,000 Punjabi “boys” are now enlisted with the TTP to fight the Pakistani Army.
In particular, the prosecution of three men — Hafiz Saeed, David ‘Daood Gilani' Headley and Faisal Shahzad should sum up the completely fluid lines that exist between terror groups based in Pakistan as they draw on expertise from Kashmir, Punjab and Waziristan. As the motivator, Saeed stands convicted of sending men from Punjab to train in Kashmir, drawing on global Jehadi know-how for the Mumbai attack. It should be fairly clear to Pakistani authorities that every passing day of denying his role or choosing to portray him as a ‘harmless cleric' only serves to widen the ‘trust deficit' between India and Pakistan, even as it bolsters the Lashkar and JuD. For the U.S., the case of David ‘Daood' Headley should be a key indicator of the bigger role groups like the Lashkar now aspire to — he may have been convicted for planning Mumbai's terror, but he was originally held for planning to bomb the Danish newspaper building over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. Finally, completing the circle, Time square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad, who reportedly took terror lessons from the TTP — that he reached through a Jaish-e-Mohammed mosque in Karachi.
Ironically, the last time we heard the phrase ‘harmless cleric,' it was the Indian government referring to the JeM chief Masood Azhar while releasing him at Kandahar. During the IC-814 hijacking too, the refusal of the U.S. and Pakistan to acknowledge the common terror threat allowed for men like Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed free to fund the 9/11 attacks, and execute the gruesome killing of journalist Daniel Pearl, while Azhar himself ordered the 2001 parliament attack in Delhi.
A decade later, failing to join the dots is just not an option. Lashkar, Taliban, Al-Qaeda-terror's foot soldiers and masterminds are disregarding their differences when it comes to plotting their next attack. It's about time that their targets too — India, Pakistan and the U.S. — see their united colours as they plan to counter them. Perhaps one step will be taken when Home Minister P. Chidambaram heads to Islamabad next month for SAARC and bilateral meetings on tackling terror. Track-2 discussions over the past few months have been counselling that meetings between the intelligence chiefs and the military heads be set up as well. Because unless New Delhi and Islamabad are able to find some common ground on terror, their trust deficit cannot be overcome. In the larger context, they along with Washington will each be left holding two sides of a terror triangle; missing pieces of the deadly puzzle that holds all our futures hostage.
(Suhasini Haidar is Deputy Foreign Editor, CNN-IBN.)