By Toufiq Siddiqi, Adjunct Senior Fellow
I was in Islamabad, Pakistan, when the terrorist attacks at the two hotels and other sites in Mumbai took place a few weeks ago. The immediate reaction of the people there was that, irrespective of who the culprits were, this was a tragedy not only for India but for Pakistan as well, since it was likely to result in setting back the reconciliation process that had been going on for the past couple of years and had accelerated since a civilian government had been duly elected in Pakistan. The anticipation was that India would immediately blame the ISI, the Pakistani military intelligence service, for the attack, just as Pakistan frequently sees the hand of RAW, ISI’s Indian counterpart, behind terrorist incidents that often take place in many Pakistani cities.
I had gone to Islamabad for a meeting organized by the SAARC Energy Centre, which focused on the opportunities for cooperation between the countries of South Asia in the fields of energy, environment, and other related areas, and the benefits that could accrue to the region from such cooperation. The pace of high-level meetings between India and Pakistan had picked up considerably, since many of the senior policy-makers in both countries were aware of the enormous benefits that could accrue to the two countries and the whole of South Asia, from increased cooperation between India and Pakistan. Disrupting any blossoming rapprochement between the two countries may well have been one of the primary reasons for the Mumbai attack.
A few days after the attack, I had the opportunity to travel from Karachi to Delhi to take part in a meeting dealing with the electric power sector in India. Security was at a greatly elevated level in both cities, at the airports as well as hotels and many other locations. What I found most striking was the contrast between the views being expressed by the people I met and the headlines in the media. People were shocked, angry, and saddened, but I do not recall meeting anyone on either side of the border who talked of going to war. On the other hand, the print media and some broadcast media seemed to be highlighting views calling for immediate retaliation of some type or other, including war.
Fortunately, the decision-makers themselves were being generally cautious. India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee stated that “The issue is not war between India and Pakistan. The issue is how to tackle terror that is emanating from the soil of Pakistan.” This affects Pakistan at least as much as India. Groups linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba and similar ones may not only be behind the attacks in Mumbai, but are also believed to be behind the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad a few months earlier, and various attacks around the country on a weekly basis. President Zardari has pointed this out on several occasions to India, and to U.S. officials involved in attempts to defuse the tensions.
Last week, India handed over to Pakistan presumed evidence that linked the Mumbai attacks to Pakistani militants, the first time it has ever done so. Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon is reported to have said that “It’s hard to believe that something of this scale, that took so long in the preparation and of this nature, which amounts really to a commando attack, could occur without anybody, anywhere in the establishment knowing.” India demanded a prompt investigation.
Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, stated that “It is our duty, my duty, to examine the dossier carefully, understand it and be truthful to myself, to my country and the neighborhood.” The Minister has a law degree from Cambridge University, and has been supportive of friendly relations with India for more than 15 years, because he sees the economic and social benefits of cooperation for both countries. It is in the interest of the two countries to give him some time to carry out the investigations.
So far, Pakistan has put the leaders of the suspected militant groups under house arrest. Since this has also been done on previous occasions, and the suspects were later released, India is demanding more action this time, including the handing over of the suspects for trial in India. Pakistan has stated that, if the evidence warrants, it will put Pakistani citizens on trial in that country, but not hand them over to India. It has also declared that its policy is to not allow any group to use Pakistani territory for launching attacks against any other country.
The question is not whether Pakistan wants to be rid of terrorism on its soil and possibly emanating from it, but whether it has the capacity to do so. People in the tribal areas have carried guns or other weapons for centuries. Additionally, hundreds of political leaders and other VIPS have their own armed security guards for protection. It would be as difficult for the government there to confiscate weapons as it would be in the United States, where the right to bear arms is guaranteed by the “Bill of Rights”. Further in a country of over 150 million people, the ingredients for making explosives are easily available. Even in rural areas, mobile phones are ubiquitous, and other telecommunication equipment is not difficult to get. It is not necessary to have state actors be involved in the Mumbai attacks, but only a thorough investigation can show whether this actually occurred, or whether some former employees sponsored the mission on their own, or whether it was a completely independent action. Presumably, Pakistan is currently carrying out such an investigation.
I believe there is little support in either country for armed hostilities. In this sense, it is not “déjà vu,” the question asked in the heading of this note. However, the progress that the two countries were making towards reconciliation has been dealt a severe blow, which is a “déjà vu”. The ongoing economic interests of the two countries, as well as of the South Asian region, require that the countries limit the period of high tension to a short time and focus more on how they can minimize such attacks in the future. The best way to do this would be to proceed with many areas of cooperation so that isolated, but nonetheless deadly, incidents such as the Mumbai attacks are tackled jointly and immediately by both countries before lasting harm can be done to their relationship.