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Home / Politics / Policy /  26/11: Five years on, Pakistan fails to budge on attackers

New Delhi: In the past five years, every India-Pakistan dialogue at every level has featured one constant—India pressing its western neighbour to bring to justice the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

Terrorism fomented by Pakistan has plagued India for decades. The Indian government has been pressing Pakistan for years to drop its support for terrorist groups and Islamabad, in turn, has consistently denied supporting them.

While India’s financial capital has not been a stranger to terrorist attacks, what made the 26 November 2008 attack (although referred to thus, the attack lasted almost 60 hours and ended early on 29 November.) stand out was its scale and the audacity of planning and execution. Ten Islamist militants, who set sail from the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi, spread havoc in Mumbai as they targeted two luxury hotels, a usually packed train station, a café popular with tourists and foreigners and a Jewish community centre. At least 166 people died in the attacks.

Evidence of the involvement of sections of the Pakistani establishment, mainly the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militant group, forced Islamabad to admit in March 2009 that the attackers had set sail from Karachi.

The evidence included confessions of Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab, the sole attacker to be caught alive, and voice intercepts between the 10 terrorists and their handlers based in Pakistan.

Americans and Israelis were also among those killed—resulting in international pressure on Pakistan to act. The result: Pakistan put LeT chief Hafiz Saeed under house arrest in mid-December 2008, only to release him in June 2009 citing lack of evidence to hold him. Seven others, including top LeT leader Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, were tried for their role in planning and providing logistic support.

The arrest by US agencies in October 2009 of Pakistani-American David Coleman Headley,who pleaded guilty to doing reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks and for another planned attack in Denmark, only reinforced India’s accusation that ISI was involved in helping LeT execute the strike. During his trial, Headley testified that ISI officers helped train him.

Despite the seemingly overwhelming evidence, five years down the line, the trial hasn’t moved anywhere, prompting questions and doubts about when and if the victims of 26/11 will get closure and also about Pakistan’s sincerity.

“Now it’s too late. Five years have elapsed and Pakistan has successfully stalled all Indian efforts to persuade them to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice," said former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal, referring to India demanding voice samples of Saeed and Lakhvi to nail them for their involvement in the November 2008 carnage.

“India has delinked dialogue with action on Mumbai. India doesn’t have anything left in terms of options," he added, referring to India’s February 2011 decision to resume talks with Pakistan. The discussions have yielded a large number of confidence-building measures in the economic sphere but the trial of the 26/11 suspects hasn’t led to any convictions—yet.

Seeking closure

Indian diplomats differ on the strategy. “Pakistan is no pushover. It’s a close neighbour. We need to keep engagement going," one Indian foreign ministry official said.

In the case of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, “the Americans got the mastermind and al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after a 10-year manhunt and without Pakistani help", another official pointed out. “We don’t have the kind of leverage the Americans have with Pakistan and they too had to rely on themselves to track him (bin Laden) down. So closure, as you call it, came after 10 years and without Pakistani help."

A third ministry official said India’s “ultimate goal is to clock 8% GDP (gross domestic product) growth. For that, we need a peaceful periphery. And for that, peace with Pakistan is an imperative. If we don’t make peace with Pakistan, it will impact our economy as no one will want to invest here given the unstable security environment."

All three declined to be named.

Sibal said the change of government in Pakistan after elections in May, bringing Nawaz Sharif to power as Prime Minister, has only complicated matters for India and the 26/11 trial.

Hafiz Saeed and his charity, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely regarded as a front for the LeT, are based in Muridke in Pakistan’s Punjab province, which is administered by Sharif’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif. In June, Shahbaz Sharif’s government allocated a grant of more than 6.1 crore Pakistani rupees in its budget for fiscal year 2013-14 to the charity, a Press Trust of India report said.

Now out of jail, Saeed moves about freely addressing anti-India rallies.

K.C. Singh, former foreign secretary who headed the India-Pakistan anti-terror mechanism set up in 2006—with the aim of exchanging information to prevent terrorist attacks—says terrorism and terrorist acts have no closure.

Soft state?

“It’s a long and constant battle against terrorism. The Indian government should keep up pressure on the Pakistani government to deliver. But unfortunately, the present establishment has lost the plot and I don’t think it has the kind of support from the public or the political parties to make any gestures to Pakistan—something that Nawaz Sharif also realizes, so why should he place a bet on this government and do anything?" Singh asked, referring to the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government being weighed down by allegations of corruption and political parties in the country preparing for national elections due next year.

Former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan G. Parthasarathy says India could use coercive diplomacy—the implied use of force and covert operations—a tactic frequently used by countries such as Russia and Iran, besides the US and Israel. “We haven’t paid Pakistan back in the same coin. So the perception is that India is a soft state," he said.

But the second foreign ministry official quoted above warned that the use of covert operations by India could result in a rapid escalation of conflict that could spin out of control. With both countries being nuclear powers, the consequences could be disastrous.

Coercive diplomacy was used by India in the aftermath of the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament in which 15 people were killed. Infuriated by the joint raid by the Jaish-e-Mohammed and the LeT on Parliament, India recalled its high commissioner from Pakistan, reduced its diplomatic staff by half, cut rail and air links and amassed its military on its border.

The crisis was defused after some frenetic high-profile diplomacy by the US and its allies.

According to Vikram Sood, former chief of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, India needs to take the war to the Pakistani camp.

“Even if war is not an option and special operations are not an option, they should not be off the table. As far as Pakistan is concerned, they haven’t ruled out anything so how can we and why should we? These should be on the table, at least as a negotiating tool," he said, noting that India did not even recall its ambassador from Islamabad to register its protest. With religion and the state inextricably linked in Pakistan, “how do you fight one and not the other? If you think war is not an option, then smartening your capacities (to fight and combat terrorism) is the only option," Sood said. “Ultimately, there is no substitute to beefing up your own capabilities and relying on yourself."

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