x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Mumbai attacks arrest pulls apart ISI-Indian terror web

The future of India-Pakistan relations may well be linked to the outcome of the US presidential election in November.

Zabiuddin Ansari, said to have been a key plotter in the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, was deported from Saudi Arabia late last month and arrested when his plane landed in Delhi.

The deportation of Ansari, also known as Abu Jundal, from Saudi Arabia, where he had been living, is expected to be followed by the deportation of over a dozen other Indian operatives of Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the ISI, who are also living in GCC countries. These are the first fruits of a tougher US policy.

The November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks were a wake-up call to the US security establishment, which suddenly realised that the ISI-run Lashkar-i-Taiba and other outfits were not simply an Indian problem, but a security nightmare for Nato. Now there is urgency to uncover and capture the numerous Pakistan-linked terror cells, some members of which are in Europe and some in the GCC.

In part because the US and Nato are involved, the GCC has become attentive to Indian requests for action against Indian nationals with ISI links. Security cooperation between the GCC and India has been multiplying, to the dismay of the Pakistani military.

The Saudi handover of Abu Jundal has been a jarring wake-up call to those in the ISI who are still determined to continue with the old strategy of "bleeding India by a thousand cuts".

Former president Zia ul Haq created that policy to punish India for the 1971 war, after which Bangladesh was severed from Pakistan. Even more than Kashmir, it is the desire for revenge for the Bangladesh war that has driven the Pakistani military's policy towards India.

Days after the Mumbai attacks, which killed 164 people, sources within Pakistan told contacts in India that the ISI had been responsible, and that the attackers had been trained by serving officers of Pakistan's navy and commando forces.

However, these reports were dismissed as a provocation because Nato intelligence agencies told their Indian counterparts that the attacks had been planned by terror groups that had "broken away from ISI tutelage". It was not the first time the Nato agencies had been wrong about Pakistan.

The ISI-led attack made a serious mistake in Mumbai by attacking western and Jewish targets. Because of its history, Israel has a much more muscular policy of self-defence than India. The November 26 attacks were intended to make India a toxic destination for westerners and Israeli citizens. The calculation was that hurting investment and tourism would derail India's then-vigorous economic expansion.

The targeting of westerners and Israelis stirred up the alliance. Former US President George W Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney had been giving practically a free pass to the Pakistani army in Afghanistan - and in India. Mr Bush believed the generals in Rawalpindi when they promised to back Nato operations, if the alliance would look the other way on Kashmir.

In 2002, anti-Muslim violence in Gujurat had infuriated many Indian Muslims. Between then and 2008, the ISI had managed to assemble networks inside India that could be counted on for logistical and intelligence support to ISI-controlled terrorist operations.

After the 2008 attacks, the Indian authorities' biggest failure - made worse because it was deliberate - was to refuse to examine the involvement of Indian nationals in the planning and execution of the raid. Doing that, it was decided, would have elevated communal tensions in India to levels that would politically benefit the opposition BJP, which was accusing the UPA of being "soft on terror".

It was India's Home Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram who chose to ignore domestic links to international terror operations - until they were revealed by Nato intelligence agencies in 2010. Now, Mr Chidambaram is claiming credit for the deportation of Abu Jundal, who allegedly was a controller of the 2008 Mumbai operation from an ISI safe house in Karachi.

However, credit for the arrest ought to go to the US. In Delhi recently, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, gave Pakistan's military an explicit warning that the days of the Bush-Cheney free pass for the ISI were over. Mr Panetta said Washington will do what it takes to defend itself and its friends from terror attacks sponsored by the Pakistani military, within which the ISI is embedded.

The Saudi deportation of Abu Jundal may bring the Pakistani military to a moment of truth, and help to rein in terror operations that are doing far more damage to Pakistan than to Afghanistan or India.

Pakistan's judiciary - under the Punjabi Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who was reinstated by President Asif Ali Zardari after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed the army in demanding it - has recently sought to dictate the choice of prime minister and president.

Mr Zardari has his faults, but he comes from a moderate Sufi background, unlike challenger Nawaz Sharif and the Army chief of staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani - whose term was also extended under US prodding. Both Mr Sharif and Gen Kayani come from "khattar" (hard-core) Jamat-i-Islami families steeped in Salafi ideology.

Clearly, the Punjab-dominated judiciary will not stop until it forces an election that it expects Mr Sharif, a Punjabi, to win. However, Mr Sharif - and that other "moderate" who gives 100 per cent backing to the generals, Imran Khan - probably realise that the palmy days of Bush-Cheney are over. Barack Obama does not see the ISI as a collection of do-gooders.

The generals will probably wait in hope of a Romney victory in November, as they expect the Republicans to resume the Bush-Cheney soft line on the ISI. However, should Mr Obama be re-elected or Mr Romney take a tough line, pressure will grow within the military leadership to abandon the embrace of terror groups that is the legacy of the Zia ul Haq era.

That would be the time to expect a breakthrough in India-Pakistan security cooperation.


MD Nalapat holds the Unesco peace chair at Manipal University and is a former editor of The Times of India