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Pulwama aftermath: Lessons from the past

On 31 Dec 1999, India secured the release of 150 hostages on board Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 by releasing three deadly terrorists Masood Azhar, Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar.  (Reuters)Premium
On 31 Dec 1999, India secured the release of 150 hostages on board Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 by releasing three deadly terrorists Masood Azhar, Omar Saeed Sheikh and Mushtaq Zargar.  (Reuters)

  • India has succeeded in isolating Pakistan, but should be prepared for a reaction to any cross-border retribution
  • There are strong feelings across India that there should be strong retribution across the border for the Pulwama attack

The last day of the twentieth century, 31 December 1999, will be forever etched in my memory as the day of a supreme national blunder, marked by our disastrous surrender to the hijackers of Indian Airlines Flight IC-814, in Kandahar. What particularly pained my colleagues and me in India’s high commission in Islamabad (note: G. Parthasarthy headed India’s high commission in Islamabad in 1998-2000) was that this was a surrender for which we would pay a heavy price. In our view, this surrender was avoidable.

All contacts with the Taliban for the first days after the hijacking were through its “embassy" in Islamabad and through Pashtun intermediaries. While the Taliban had messages sent through passengers and intermediaries, urging us to yield to the demands of hijackers, it was made clear to Taliban representatives that they would be held responsible for the safety and security of the passengers.

The Taliban said that our passengers had noted that we had earlier buckled to similar demands, in Kashmir, to secure the release of the then chief minister’s daughter (note: Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, in 1989). A negotiating team from New Delhi then took over the negotiations a few days later. Strangely, the team had no clearly designated leader.

What followed was a craven surrender, personally supervised by the then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh, who arrived in Kandahar bringing along three deadly terrorists under Indian custody, who were handed over to the Taliban. The terrorists were Masood Azhar, a Deobandi cleric closely associated with the Afghan Taliban; Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British national of Pakistani origin, who was a known psychopath, and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar, a Kashmiri terrorist.

The three men

Omar Saeed Sheikh was in jail for kidnapping Western tourists in India— an act he readily acknowledged. After his return to Pakistan, Sheikh killed Daniel Pearl, an American journalist of the Wall Street Journal. He also remitted $100,000 to the US, to the hijackers behind 9/11 who were then resident in Florida. He has, since been convicted, but leads a comfortable life in a Karachi jail, with unfettered access to the outside world.

Shortly after his release, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar returned to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) and renewed the activities of the “Al-Umar Mujahideen" in Muzaffarabad in PoK, recruiting and training young Kashmiris for terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir.

Maulana Masood Azhar was welcomed back like a hero in Pakistan. He settled down in his home town, Bahawalpur, and renewed his close links in Afghanistan with Taliban leader Mullah Omar. He, thereafter, masterminded the attack on India’s Parliament in December 2001—an event that took India and Pakistan to the brink of war. Under huge American pressure after 9/11, then Pakistan president general Pervez Musharraf sought a reset of relations with India and also became a target of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM).

In March 2004, lieutenant general Javed Ashraf Qazi, a former ISI chief and then minister in the Musharraf government, acknowledged in Pakistan’s Parliament: “We must admit that the Jaish-e-Mohammed has been involved in the killings of thousands of innocent Kashmiris, the attack on the Indian Parliament, the murder of Daniel Pearl and an attempt to assassinate general (Pervez) Musharraf."

Jaish and Lashkar

Masood Azhar and the JeM soon gave way to Hafiz Saeed’s Lashkar-e -Taiba (LeT) as the principal instrument for ISI-sponsored terrorism in India after 9/11. It was the Lashkar that was assigned the task of the 26/11 terrorist strike on Mumbai by the ISI. The JeM returned to the forefront of Jihadi terrorism in India in 2016 with the attack on the Pathankot airbase, located barely 35 miles away from the international border, after being carefully rehabilitated and given a high profile in Pakistan by the ISI.

Meanwhile, the LeT was carefully mainstreamed in the wake of international pressure following the 26/11 terrorist strike. Both the LeT and the JeM, however, remain major assets of the ISI for cross-border terrorism. The coexistence of the Deobandi JeM with the Wahhabi, Saudi Arabia-oriented LeT also suits the sectarian priorities of ISI activities. These two terrorist groups enable the ISI to maintain sectarian links simultaneously with Deobandi-oriented Afghan Taliban, while retaining support for another group with a Saudi sectarian orientation.

The increasing presence of the JeM, including in the Pulwama attack, has to be seen in the background of these developments. Like the cadres of the LeT, the members of the JeM are highly motivated to undertake “Fidayeen", or commando attacks. The tactics involve sending highly motivated cadres to train young recruits for suicide attacks.

Moreover, the treatment mooted out to former Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif by the army has made it clear that it would brook no dissent from any civilian prime minister. Realistic Pakistanis acknowledge that it is the army chief and not the prime minister who determines relations with key neighbours like India, China, Afghanistan and Iran. While many foreign leaders in countries like China, Afghanistan, the US, the UK and Saudi Arabia may maintain a façade of protocol correctness in dealing with Prime Minister Imran Khan, they are all too aware that the course of future relations will be determined by general Qamar Javed Bajwa and not Imran Khan.

A major feature of conduct of foreign policy by the Pakistan Army is the brazenness with which it resorts to falsehoods. This was particularly manifested in its approach of injured innocence to allegations that it had hosted Osama bin Laden in the cantonment town of Abbottabad for over a decade, even as president Musharraf was swearing eternal loyalty to the US.

Global reaction to Pulwama

The Pulwama attack mastermind, Jaish operative Kamran alias Rashid Ghazi, was killed in an encounter with security forces shortly after the terrorist attack on the CRPF convoy. In keeping with past practice, Pakistan, led by its egotistic and ambitious foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, protested his country’s innocence in the Pulwama terrorist outrage. It’s no secret that Qureshi is aspiring for Imran Khan’s job, when and if Imran loses the army’s support, by playing to the army’s ego and ambitions. Any dialogue or interaction with Qureshi is, therefore, best avoided.

India can be more than satisfied at the international reaction to the Pulwama outrage, spearheaded by the US, with President Donald Trump and the White House mincing no words in condemning the attack. This was reinforced by virtually unanimous condemnation by members of the US Congress. What was also remarkable was that apart from Russia and members of the European Union, the UN secretary general joined the chorus calling for the perpetrators to be “brought to justice". Even as Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman prepared to leave for Pakistan, the official Saudi Press Agency described the Pulwama bombings as “cowardly terrorist acts", adding that the desert Kingdom stands with “the friendly Republic of India, against terrorism and extremism".

While it would be unrealistic to expect Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies to criticize Pakistan openly on such occasions, such Saudi support for India after a terrorist attack would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. More importantly, after having rejected our entry into the 53-member Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) primarily at Pakistan’s behest half a century ago, the United Arab Emirates has now invited India to participate in an OIC meeting in Abu Dhabi.

New Delhi has gone into an overdrive to secure international support for action against the JeM after the Pulwama attack. The UN Security Council passed a unanimous resolution condemning the terrorist attack in the face of strong opposition by Pakistan. Even China was compelled to endorse this resolution, despite its efforts to stall any action. The resolution condemned in the “strongest terms, the heinous and cowardly suicide bombing in Jammu and Kashmir, which resulted in over 40 Indian paramilitary forces dead and dozens wounded on February 14, 2019, for which the JeM has claimed responsibility".

Around the same time, the International Financial Action Task Force (FATF), mandated to act against funding of terrorism, has categorically stated that Pakistan “does not demonstrate proper understanding of the terror financing of risks posed by the Daesh, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, LeT, the Haqqani Network and persons affiliated with the Taliban". The FATF has also criticized the “limited progress" Pakistan has achieved thus far and “urges Pakistan to swiftly complete its action plan, particularly those with timelines of May 2019".

The Indian strategy

Closer to home, India has to move decisively to act jointly with two other countries, Iran and Afghanistan, which are also victims of Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. A new and significant development affecting regional equations is the growing Iranian suspicions about Pakistan’s role in fostering violence in its Sunni majority Sistan-Baluchistan Province, bordering Pakistan. The Iranians have for some time now been suspicious of a Saudi-Pakistani role in fomenting violence in this border province by extremist Sunni groups. There have been periodic border clashes in the past between Pakistani and Iranian paramilitary forces, arising from attempts at cross-border infiltration.

Iran announced on 12 February, that 28 of its border troops had been killed in a bomb blast near the Iran-Pakistan border and warned of serious retribution. Barely 48 hours later, Pakistan summoned Iran’s ambassador in Islamabad and handed over a “strong protest" to Iran for the killing of six Pakistani soldiers, while seriously injuring 14 others along the Pakistan-Iran border. These incidents took place on the eve of the visit to Pakistan by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Tehran evidently believes the killings took place because Pakistan is beholden to Saudi Arabia for its huge economic aid programme.

New equations are now emerging in Iran-Afghanistan relations, thanks to Tehran’s discussions with the present Taliban leadership for bringing peace to Afghanistan. The Taliban is evidently persuaded that it needs Iran’s cooperation to build bridges to the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Shia Hazaras and the Turkmens, who had resisted it fiercely when it last assumed power in Kabul.

Moreover, prominent Afghan leaders attended a recent conference on Afghan peace in Moscow. Those participating in this conference included former president Hamid Karzai, Hanif Atmar, who is set to contest the next Afghan presidential elections, and Tajik strongman Atta Mohammed Noor, along with members of the Taliban leadership. Iran and Russia, therefore, complement each other in nudging the Taliban to work for an inclusive government in Afghanistan.

India also has considerable leverage with the Pashtun population living along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It can work with the Afghan government to support the movement in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. This movement arises from a strong sense of Pashtun resentment and sub-nationalism across the disputed Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Even the Taliban has never recognized the British imposed Durand Line separating Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Pashtun alienation arises from the brutal operations in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan by the Pakistani military in its much-touted Zarb-e-Azb operations. Over one million Pashtuns were driven out of their homes which were reduced to rubble by Pakistani artillery and aerial bombing. Pashtun resentment runs deep in these tribal areas. These sentiments are symbolized by the emergence of a nationalistic “Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement" in the tribal areas across the Durand Line. India should categorically state that it does not recognize the Durand Line as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and that the border should be demarcated to fulfil the historical aspirations of the Pashtuns.

There are strong feelings across India that there should be strong retribution across the border for the Pulwama outrage. While Pakistan has found itself isolated and condemned in international forums by its actions, any cross-border military operation and retribution should be meticulously planned, measured, and proportionate, with due preparation and readiness for similar action by Pakistan.

G.Parthasarathy is a former diplomat. He served as India’s high commissioner to Pakistan and Myanmar.

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