An attack on a train in the Indian heartland, killing mainly Pakistani passengers traveling to Lahore is a sign that terrorism is mutating into a more virulent form. This article was published in Hindustan Times February 19, 2007
On September 11, 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared that “Pakistan is also a victim of terrorism”, that terrorism was a threat to both nations and, thus, made it incumbent on them to work together to tackle the issue.
Immediately, a minor firestorm erupted in New Delhi. The BJP’s spokesman, Ravi Shankar Prasad, described the statement as “disturbing, worrisome and untimely”.
Whether or not the PM was conscious that he was speaking on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 is not clear. He was en route to Brazil and thereafter would go to Cuba and meet President Pervez Musharraf on the sidelines of the NAM summit.
Singh acknowledged that “As far as the past is concerned, Pakistan-sponsored terrorism has certainly been a fact of life.” But he pointed out that when former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and President Musharraf signed the joint statement in 2004, “[it] was in a way tacit recognition of ground realities and their solemn agreement to move forward in the reverse direction”.
The significance of his remarks became apparent in Havana where the PM and the Pakistani President agreed to “put in place an India-Pakistan anti-terrorism institutional mechanism to identify and implement counter-terrorism initiatives and investigations”. This formulation was seen as a major development. It represented the distance moved by the two sides since the joint statement of January 2004. At the time, the onus had been on Pakistan to ensure that no part of “territory under its control” would be used for terrorist acts against India.
The Havana decision was denounced even more strongly, with a clutch of former diplomats and intelligence officials joining the BJP in terming the move as tantamount to a sellout. Yet, five months later, the logic of this arrangement is tragically apparent. The Samjhauta Express may have been an Indian train, and Sunday’s attack on it took place on Indian soil. But those who carried it out knew that the bulk of the victims would be Pakistani nationals, and Muslims. This is as clear a declaration of war on both countries by the as-yet-unnamed groups of terrorists as any. This had better be understood.
The incident has brought out three points. First, terrorists will not hesitate to attack any target, be it Pakistani, Indian, Hindu or Muslim, to achieve their aim of preventing normalisation of India-Pakistan ties. The Samjhauta Express attack is a continuation of tactics witnessed in Malegaon,when on September 8, terrorists, including a Pakistani national, triggered bombs at a Muslim congregation on the occasion of Shab-e-Barat that killed 37 people.
Second, terrorists remain a step ahead of the authorities in planning and executing their horrendous acts. While in the cases of Malegaon and the Mumbai train blasts, the police have caught a number of suspects, they are yet to lay their hands on any significant masterminds.
Third, terrorists have now attained a great deal of sophistication in choosing their targets and weapons. At first sight, the difference between the Samjhauta attack, and that on Mumbai’s local trains was in the sophistication of the devices used in the latter strike. However, the attackers knew what they wanted, not so much a blast, but a fire which would spread in a speeding train and achieve the end of killing people. And they achieved it by placing bottles of an inflammable liquid with a simple pipe bomb linked to a timer.
Critics of the government’s strategy of working with Pakistani counterparts have not quite kept pace with the changing dynamics of terrorist violence in its epicentre, Pakistan, or the impact on the neighbouring regions of Afghanistan, Iran, India and Bangladesh. As Singh pointed out, Pakistan has certainly played a major role in lighting the fires of terrorism in the region. There is enough evidence in the writings of courageous Pakistani journalists, which suggest that elements of the Pakistani system continue to support some groups in the name of the freedom struggle in Kashmir. Yet, fact is that Pakistan is itself teetering on a slippery slope.
Of late, there have been a spate of suicide bomber attacks in and around Islamabad. On January 26, a terrorist killed himself and a security guard at a hotel where the Indian High Commissioner was to host a reception. On February 6, a suicide attacker blew himself up in the car park of Islamabad airport, injuring 10 people. Nine days later, on February 17, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a Quetta court, killing 17 people and wounding 37.
Ever since 9/11, the draconian US-led counter-terrorist operations have led to the mutation of Pakistani terrorist groups. Older ones like the Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat-e-jihad-e-Islami have gone underground and newer ones like the Jundullah have emerged with deep links to the al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Pakistan’s biggest failure has been its inability to control the Waziristan region. American officials now say that al-Qaeda and the Taliban have been able to re-establish significant control over their worldwide network and create a new infrastructure of training camps in this tribal region. Over the past year, insurgent tactics from Iraq have migrated to Afghanistan, where suicide bombings have increased five-fold and roadside bomb attacks have doubled. Last Sunday, Iran’s Foreign Ministry charged that on February 16 Sunni terrorists with Pakistani links had struck at the south-eastern city of Zahedan — through which logistical aid to Afghanistan is routed.
At first sight, the simplest thing would be to pressure Musharraf to attack the camps in Waziristan and elsewhere. Washington is afraid that strikes on camps, leading to civilian casualties would weaken not just his position, but also that of the Pakistan army, already battered by its de facto retreat from Waziristan last year. New Delhi is aware of the pressures on the General and would work with him rather than pillory him. The Iranians, too, have declared that they would seek to work with Pakistan to contain the problem.
In recent testimony to a Congressional committee, Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Pakistan, acknowledged that Pakistan’s ability to address the terrorist challenge is limited. The Pakistan army has suffered substantial casualties in taking on the Taliban and Waziri tribals; Pakistani society has been battered by the continuing sectarian strife.
India’s calculation, as that of the US and other nations, has to be based on whether the situation will improve or deteriorate were Musharraf to leave. This has to be an entirely pragmatic calculation, devoid of any sentimentality, or for that matter ill-feelings about his role in Kargil, or past Pakistani support of terrorism. Yet, there are things Musharraf can and must do — get the democratic opposition in Pakistan on-board and resist the temptation to retain the ‘freedom fighter’ option in Kashmir.
Just last week, it was announced that the first meeting of the new Indo-Pakistani anti-terror mechanism will take place in Islamabad on March 6. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee has said that the mandate of the mechanism would be to consider counter-terrorism measures and regular and timely sharing of information.
Whatever this may mean, it’s clear that we need more cooperation rather than less. Till now the terrorists have been one step ahead of those who are seeking to check them. The countries of the region need to dramatically reduce their trust deficit in each other and enhance their efforts of tackling a phenomena which constitutes nothing less than an existential threat to them.