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Lessons and challenges for Pakistan

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LEOPOLD CAFÉ: Pakistani public opinion about the identity of militants and terrorists has transformed in to a great degree.
LEOPOLD CAFÉ: Pakistani public opinion about the identity of militants and terrorists has transformed in to a great degree.

Hassan Abbas

Pakistan is learning the hard way that religious extremists and militants of all stripes are bad for the country.

The tragic Mumbai attacks in November 2008 unfortunately derailed the India-Pakistan peace process in its wake. It should have brought both countries closer instead. The humanistic traditions and values of the Indian sub-continent and Indus Valley civilisation demanded so. On the contrary, masterminds of the terror attacks are succeeding so far because disruption of South Asian peace process was one of their prime targets. India legitimately expected that Pakistan would do its best to pursue and prosecute those involved in the heinous crime but in its hour of pain and grief it forgot that Pakistan is also a victim of terrorism and is passing through turbulent times.

Pakistan has faced enormous challenges in 2009. It has been confronted with the growing menace of terrorism — ranging from militancy in the Swat valley to insurgency in parts of the Pashtun-dominated Federally Administered Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan. Dozens of suicide bombers have targeted urban centres of Pakistan, killing civilians and security forces alike. Police and law enforcement have lost hundreds of their personnel in this battle this year alone. The fact that even Pakistan army’s General Headquarters in Rawalpindi and the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) offices in Lahore and Peshawar were also attacked indicate that terrorists consider them their arch enemy. Somehow, the significance of these developments has not been fully recognised in India.

Pakistani public opinion about the identity of militants and terrorists has transformed in to a great degree. The earlier denial and misperception that ‘outsiders are doing all this’ has given way to acceptance of the fact that country’s internal dynamics are largely responsible for the rise of violence. There is also an understanding that religious extremism has played a gruesome role in all of this. People increasingly acknowledge that domestic and foreign policy mistakes of 1980s and 1990s are coming back to haunt the country.

Many Pakistanis, however, also believe that India leaves no stone unturned in making things more difficult for Pakistan whenever it can. Alleged Indian interference in Baluchistan for instance is often referred to in this regard. The matter was even mentioned in the joint statement issued after the Prime Ministers of the two countries met at Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt in August 2009. More recently, Pakistani security forces operating in South Waziristan have also hinted that they have found some evidence of Indian support to militants in FATA. Whether true or false, the real issue is the widespread Pakistani belief that India is involved in destabilising Pakistan.

Pakistan’s response to Mumbai attacks must be understood in this context. The initial Pakistani public reaction to the attacks was one of shock and alarm. Pakistanis become distressed, however, when the electronic media started showing clips from live Indian television channel transmissions declaring that Pakistan was the culprit. Once the facts of the case started getting disseminated, especially about the identity of Mohammad Ajmal ‘Kasab’ — the lone surviving member of the terrorist group that created havoc in Mumbai — there was initially disbelief in Pakistan. Pakistan’s various media channels wasted no time in sending their investigative teams to Faridkot, ‘Kasab’s’ hometown in Punjab. To Pakistani journalists’ credit, they confirmed ‘Kasab’s’ nationality and exposed his links to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani militant group known for its activities in the Kashmir region. Despite delay and reluctance on the part of Pakistan’s government to acknowledge this connection, the independent media fulfilled its professional responsibility without fear or favour.

Consequently, Pakistan deputed some of its finest law enforcement officials in the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to spearhead the investigations. Despite concerns about LET’s old connections with security agencies of the country, the political leadership acted quite swiftly. The arrest of important suspects like Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks, would not have been possible without the help from country’s intelligence services, too. The clamp-down on the Jamaat-ud Dawa, the charity cum proselytising group associated with LET, all across the country was no small job as well. Since then, Pakistan and India have exchanged many dossiers containing their respective investigations and questions for the other side. India legitimately expects quick progress in this case and it is in Pakistan’s interest to proceed in the matter in a transparent fashion. It is worth remembering, though, that any law enforcement organisation’s evidence-gathering exercise, as per standard legal guidelines, takes time. Indian law enforcement has also taken many months to investigate and prepare the case for prosecution in Indian courts.

One of the reasons for a disconnect between Indian and Pakistani positions on the subject relates to the varying views about the alleged role of Pakistani intelligence services in all of this. The difference between acts of omission and commission should be clearly understood. Prosecution in the court of law needs concrete evidence rather than suspicion or bad reputation. Pakistan’s judiciary has earned a lot of respect in the last couple of years and it will guard its newly won independence irrespective of anything else. This alone should make India comfortable with the trial stage of the case.

Ideal opportunity

Pakistan has an ideal opportunity to show to India that it is fully committed to defeat terrorism in all its shapes and forms. Political rhetoric for public consumption on the subject, both in India and Pakistan, should not be allowed to disrupt honest and professional investigations of the Mumbai attacks. All other disputes between the two countries should be dealt with and tackled separately from this case and no quid pro quo arrangement or expectation should come in the way of giving an exemplary punishment to those responsible for this crime against humanity. This includes all who are to be found involved in planning, facilitating, or orchestrating the atrocity. My opinion on this is not a minority view in Pakistan. Pakistani writers, journalists and politicians have said this repeatedly. President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, and prominent political leaders like Nawaz Sharif and Altaf Hussain are all on record supporting such an outcome. A renowned Pakistani lawyer and writer Babar Sattar very aptly says: “It is not the Pakistani identity of Ajmal ‘Kasab’ that makes Pakistan guilty of having a hand in Mumbai. But it is the misguided inclination to hide unflattering truth born of false pride and misperceived patriotism that could make us complicit.”

Pakistan is learning the hard way that religious extremists and militants of all stripes are bad for the country. There is no such thing as ‘Good Taliban’ or ‘Bad Taliban.’ Those who have distorted religious ideals and are involved in brainwashing many youngsters in Pakistan are looking to expand their space in the country. Lack of education and economic distress strengthen their role in society further. Pakistan is currently taking unprecedented military action against these forces, but it will not be able to defeat these forces of darkness comprehensively without regional stability and help from India. A good beginning in this direction can be more interaction and cooperation between the civilian law enforcement agencies of the two countries.

No one can deny that both countries have produced fanatics of one kind or the other and insurgencies of various intensities are brewing in various parts of both the countries. The longer the South Asian peace process remains frozen, more extensive will be the damaging impact of extremism and mutual mistrust.

(Dr. Hassan Abbas is a Bernard Schwartz fellow at the Asia Society and senior adviser at the Belfer Centre, Harvard Kennedy School. He is also the author of Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism.)


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