By Bhaskar Roy
Indians should not have been surprised or dismayed by the Chicago court’s verdict acquitting Pakistani–Canadian Tawwahur Hussain Rana of involvement in the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack. Of course, Rana did not get away scot free. He was held guilty of two other charges-planning attacks on a Danish newspaper office which had published a cartoon of Prophet Mohammad, and supporting the Pakistani terrorist organization, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET).
The deposition of Rana’s friend and accomplice David Coleman Headley, a Pakistani-American, who turned approver in the case against Rana, is interesting in terms of allegations against Pakistan’s premium intelligence agency, the ISI, the fountainhead of Pakistan’s terrorist army.
Headley started with accusing ISI top leaders of involvement in the 26/11 terrorist attacks, but came down to say that ISI top leaders were not involved.
It was around the same time that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton absolved the top brass in Pakistan including the ISI, of any knowledge of Osama bin Laden hiding in the military town of Abbottabad for six years. Yet, she did not explain why the US did not take Pak army and ISI top brass into confidence on the commando operation to take out Osama.
Intelligence experts are very well aware that an outside agent is never aware of the level of the intelligence agency at which the operation was approved. Headley’s knowledge would be what his handlers like Maj. Iqbal and others would have told him. And handlers of such agents rarely ever use their real names.
What is important is the fact that an operation of this scale involving complicated training and operational facilities and a huge amount of funds could not have been planned and executed by a handful of renegade actors. If this was the case and against the interest of the ISI and the Pakistani army they would have been hauled over red hot coals and not protected. The ten terrorists who came to Mumbai were trained by Pakistani navy experts, also. They were escorted by navy commandos to hijack an Indian fishing trawler for the rest of their journey to the Mumbai coast. It would be interesting to note that there were no back up plans to bring the terrorists to Pakistan after the operation was over. It was to try and ensure that no prominent trail was left to trace them back to Pakistan. The objective was that in the fight the terrorists would ultimately be killed by Indian security forces. In fact, the intercepts from their handlers in Pakistan during the operation urged them to “kill” till they were killed. That Ajmal Kasab was captured alive by the Indian security personnel was sheer luck.
Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad, who was recently assassinated, had referred to the ISI-LET collusion in the Mumbai attack. Pakistani journalists are pointing fingers at the ISI for his murder because he was exposing too much information on links between the ISI and terrorist organizations and he was called and warned by senior ISI officers in October, 2010.
No one should ignore the established fact that the LET was an ISI creation to launch operations in Kashmir, which would expand to other parts of India.
Indians must understand that the growing strategic relationship with the US has its own boundaries. The US or any other country would look at its own interest first. Certainly, the US pushed through the India-US Nuclear Supplier’s Group (NSG) because of mutual interest. It is preparing to support India’s entry into three other international regimes on nuclear and missile technology. At the same time it has not really opposed China’s proposed supply of two more nuclear power reactors to Pakistan which really contravenes China’s accession to another nuclear regime. The US government has also been silent on evidence confirming persistent Chinese nuclear technology proliferation to Pakistan.
India has its own priorities in which it has not gone fully with the US. Iran sanctions is a case in point. India executes its own independent foreign policy where its own interests are prime. This is the hallmark of a power that can speak on its own. Strategic cooperation comes into play when interests complement each other.
India and the US have common interest in terrorism in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There has also been cooperation from the US in intelligence sharing in Afghanistan on attacks by Pakistan sponsored terrorism on the Indian Embassy in Kabul and on other occasions. But America has its own imperatives in Af-Pak in efforts to pull out its troops, a rising domestic demand in the US.
Although the relations between the US and Pakistan are the worst ever, and there is little or no trust left between the US government and the Pakistani army/ISI, Washington cannot do without the Pak army and ISI top brass. Hence, Headley’s and the Rana case had to be influenced and handled differently. Otherwise, ISI Chief Lt. Gen. Shuja Pasha would have been in the docks in US courts as the case first tended to be. Unfortunately, the Americans presumed if India was delinked from the Rana case, it would persuade the Pak army/ISI to cooperate more on terrorism.
Pakistan has severely curtailed CIA operations and US military presence in Pakistan. The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, addressing the 139th Corps Commanders Conference (ISPR release, June 10) took as careful a position as he could. While emphasising that US operations on Pakistan’s soil was “drastically reduced”’ he also advocated that billions of dollars of US military aid to Pakistan to fight terrorism should be diverted to bolster the economy and help ordinary Pakistanis. This was in total contrast to his outrage against the US Congress’ Kerry-Lugar-Brennan bill last year which pledged $ 7.5 billion civilian assistance over the next five years but strictly controlled by the US.
On military operations in North Waziristan, a key US demand to go after the Haqqani clique and others there, Kayani was more circumspect. These are the Pakistani army’s assets for asymmetric war in Afghanistan, and it was not in their strategic interest to dismantle them.
On the other hand, the US position on terrorist havens in Pakistan is unrelenting. CIA Chief Leon Panetta, in his congressional hearing last week, before taking over as Defence Secretary, made it clear that there will be no peace till these terrorist havens were dismantled. The reshuffle in Washington is interesting. While Panetta is to head the Pentagon, US top commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus will replace him as the director of the CIA. The experienced remain in place.
The US is going to come up against another challenge. China, which has till now remained satisfied in Afghanistan with economic investment and very peripheral assistance and training to the Afghan police, would be gauging the ground in Afghanistan in conjunction with Pakistan. According to US and Pakistani media reports, Pak Prime Minister Yusaf Raza Gilani, on his return from China in May, conveyed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Afghanistan’s future lay with China and not the US, and Indian consulates in Afghanistan had to be drastically reduced. On his visit to Kabul to convey this message, Gilani was accompanied by army Chief Kayani and ISI Chief Pasha. Pakistan has also conveyed to Karzai that in the post-NATO/US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Kabul must evict Indian influence from Afghanistan to avail Pakistan’s cooperation.
This is a scenario in which Pakistan and China have common cause where India is concerned. A recent authoritative Chinese article (Global Times, June 06, 2011) raised the issue of reviving the medieval Silk Road going from China through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia. This is not a new idea, but has been held back because of the situation in Afghanistan. What China is looking to is to use its time tested ally, and willing and devoted junior partner Pakistan, to dominate the Af-Pak region after the US withdrawal. At the moment, China is not in a position to alienate the US.
But it is very unlikely that the US (and NATO) will turn their backs on Afghanistan as they did after the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. Moreover, US interests in Central Asia have increased many times since then. Of priority is the Central Asian oil and gas reserves and China’s westward expansion. Washington is not going to let Pakistan out of its grip easily, and Pakistan cannot get out easily either. It will be very costly.
Russia is no small player either in this game. It has given NATO access to transport arms and logistics to Afghanistan through its territory as the supplies through Pakistan came under militant attacks. Terrorist havens in Pakistan and Afghanistan are a major threat to Russia, and they have taken up the issue with both countries. They see Pakistan as the main problem.
It is, however, premature to forecast how Russia will view US interests in Central Asia vis-a-vis China’s interests. Moscow has trust deficit with both, but in some ways they carry a historical mutual distrust with China. Moscow considers Central Asia as its own backyard. Most probably, Moscow’s concerns with terrorism will override differences with the west in European strategic affairs. Moscow has demonstrated this to a certain extent.
Little has been written about Iran’s role in Afghanistan. Tehran has dabbled with the Al Qaeda in the past. It has interest with the Shias in Afghanistan. If isolated from the Afghan process it can play a negative role given its common border with the country. The US is leading the Afghan counter-terrorism and peace process, with Pakistan holding the critical card to disable the same. The US may have to go back to the post 9/11 period when Iran quickly agreed to allow the US use of its airspace in Afghan Al Qaeda operations. A solution may have to be found around these issues.
India has an enduring interest in Afghanistan. There are strong historical and cultural connections, and people-to-people relations as depicted in Rabindranath Tagore’s short story “Kabuliwala”. In the epic Mahabharata, Queen Gandhari’s name is indicative of her birth in Kandahar (known as Gandhar in ancient Indian history). Even today, India enjoys the highest popularity among the people of Afghanistan, and Indian films and music enjoy very high appreciation there.
Given these multilayered connection, India has a legitimate interest in Afghanistan. What goes against India is that the two countries do not enjoy common borders and are separated by a hostile Pakistan.
Some alarm in the Indian media over the moves in the UN to separate the combined Taliban-Al Qaida list of terrorists under resolution 1267 appears unwarranted. Many on the list are ex-Talibans. If the Taliban’s cooperation is required to conclude the peace process, and there appears to be no other option, this step is imperative. New Delhi has not opposed talks with the Taliban. As one of the members of the current 15-member security council, India will have a role to play in separation of Taliban-Al Qaida combined list, and also delist some of the Taliban figuring in the UN list. No strategic opportunity should be dismissed on emotional grounds without due considerations.
But Washington has not relieved Pakistan from mounting pressures. During his unannounced visit to Islamabad on June 11, CIA Chief Leon Panetta presented Gen. Kayani and Lt. Gen. Pasha with hard evidence that intelligence shared with the ISI were being passed to the militants even now. Kayani told Panetta that US boots must leave Pakistan, Panetta was equally emphatic that US boots will remain in Pakistan as long as needed citing leakage of shared intelligence as one of the reasons. Panetta left abruptly without meeting any ministers.
The almost simultaneous Pakistan visit by President Hamid Karzai for the first joint commission on peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan revealed some “nice words” in the joint statement, what happened inside was revealed by Karzai’s press statement. He made it clear that India’s presence in Afghanistan contributed positively, India was an old friend, and Pakistan should have no objection to India’s presence. On the other hand, Pak Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, addressing the same press conference, avoided a question on what action will take place against the Haqqani militant clique. This makes clear that the Pak army is not going to dismantle its terrorist/militant assets.
Gen. Kayani’s speech to the Corps Commander’s Conference conveys the army does not want to have the US peering into its affairs, and let that relationship be conducted between the two governments in the civilian arena. It is, therefore, suggestive of a strategy to implead China militarily in the Afghan issue. If true, this is unlikely to work at the moment, but certainly if the US decides to withdraw from Afghanistan.
India must use all channels available to talk with the countries involved in Afghanistan, try and arrive at a consensus, and ensure that Pakistan gives assurance to the UN Security Council that it will not meddle in Afghanistan. Pakistani’s “strategic depth” strategy must be designated at the UN as an act of terrorism. All countries play games as per their perceived national interests. India must also play the same game.
(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at [email protected])