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INDIA/PAKISTAN: Inching Away From Confrontation

Analysis by Praful Bidwai

NEW DELHI, Dec 10 2008 (IPS) - Even though their armed forces remain on high alert, India and Pakistan appear to be inching away from confrontation over the Mumbai terrorist attacks, which have precipitated a major crisis in their bilateral relations.

There are several indications that the nuclear-armed neighbours may be willing to give diplomacy a chance. Conditions in both countries favour this approach although hardliners continue to oppose it.

The surest indication came on Tuesday when India moved the United Nations Security Council to call for a global ban on the Pakistan-based organisation, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, itself linked to the militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT, or army of the pure), which India believes planned and executed the Mumbai attacks.

However, India and Pakistan are still far away from de-freezing their diplomatic and trade relations and building confidence levels to a point where they can share information pertaining to the attacks’ perpetrators and their connections with various agencies and discuss how to take effective action against them.

The Defence Committee of the Cabinet (DCC) in Pakistan met on Monday and decided to renew the offer of full cooperation with India, including intelligence-sharing, assistance in investigations and the formation of a joint commission against terrorism. It also vowed not to allow Pakistani soil and facilities to be used to carry out terrorist activities against another country.

The Pakistan government has since arrested several members of the LeT, including senior commanders Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Zarar Shah.

India says it has strong evidence that the LeT was responsible for the attacks and that Lakhvi was the main brain behind it, who directed the 10 militants who carried it out. New Delhi says it has proof that the LeT has links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.

India wants strong action against the LeT. The United States too has demanded that it be brought to justice.

Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani confirmed on Wednesday that Lakhvi and Shah have been arrested. Pakistan, he said, would also be sending a high-level delegation to India to mend ties ruptured by the Mumbai terror mayhem.

Also Pakistan’s defence minister has also told an Indian television channel that Maulana Masood Azhar, the chief of another extremist group, Jaish-e-Mohammed has been “picked up”. Pakistani media reports say he has been placed under house arrest.

However, Gilani denied that Pakistan was responding to pressure from India. “Whatever action we take will be in the interest of the country and its people,” he said during a press conference in his hometown, Multan.

Indian officials remains sceptical about the arrests and about Pakistan’s commitment to cracking down on LeT or JeM. A senior official told an Indian newspaper that the past record of such detentions does not inspire much confidence. Azhar was put under house arrest in 2002, “but he was constantly in touch with his people. The front door was shut but the back door was open all the time.”

Irfan Husain, a respected Pakistani commentator and columnist with the “Dawn” newspaper, shares this assessment and says “it is difficult to see how terrorist groups like LeT and JeM can be reined in. Both have received official blessing and support in the past…”

He adds: “One major reason why the army is unwilling to completely sever its links with extremists is that it fears alliance between India and Afghanistan that would see Pakistan encircled. Having an army of proxy warriors is an insurance policy military planners are reluctant to surrender.”

Indian officials say that Pakistan may be using such temporary detentions as a way of “buying time” and warding off international pressure. But they have refrained from making any moves that would ratchet up tensions.

Domestically, conditions have improved in India for the government to explore non-military approaches to resolving the crisis and getting Pakistan to act decisively against jehadi groups, which President Asif Ali Zardari terms as “non-state actors”.

The pressure for a tough stance against Pakistan, including strikes against LeT camps, came primarily from the Rrght-wing Hindu-chauvinist Bharatiya Janata Party, which made terrorism in major plank in its campaign for elections to five state Assemblies which were held last fortnight.

However, the election results which came in on Monday have a sobering lesson for the BJP. The party fared badly in Rajasthan and in the national capital territory of Delhi, which both went to the polls after the impact of the Mumbai attacks had fully sunk in.

“The results clearly showed that the public does not accept BJP’s demand for tough military action against Pakistan and rejects its contention that the ruling United Progressive Alliance government lacks the will or strategy to fight terrorism,” says political scientist Kamal Mitra Chenoy, attached to the School of International Studies at Jawaharal Nehru University.

“People know that the military option is fought with the unacceptable danger of nuclear war,’’ said Chenoy. ‘’Besides, they realised that the BJP was trying to milk the Mumbai tragedy for narrow and parochial political gains. The defeat of teh BJP’s campaign strategy will expand the room for diplomatic manoeuvre available to the UPA.”

Meanwhile, President Zardari has published an op-ed article in “The New York Times”, in which he describes the Mumbai attacks as “directed not only at India, but also at Pakistan’s new democratic government and the peace process with India”. He pledges to take strong action against their perpetrators, “treating them as criminals, terrorists and murderers.”

He also says “the best response” for India, Pakistan and the U.S. to the Mumbai carnage is “to coordinate in counteracting the scourge of terrorism.” Zardari’s article has been widely reproduced in the Indian media.

“It is imperative that India and Pakistan jointly investigate the attacks, and that Pakistan cracks down seriously on LeT and other terrorist groups”, argues Karamat Ali, a Karachi-based social activist and a member of the coordination committee of the Pakistan Peace Coalition, an umbrella group set up in 1999 to oppose nuclear weapons and fight for peace and reconciliation in South Asia.

“This may be the last chance for the Pakistan government to act against terrorist groups,” says Ali. “A joint India-Pakistan investigation into the attacks will help build up mutual confidence while encouraging Pakistani officials to move away from outright denial of the involvement of jehadi groups based in this country and of Pakistan’s responsibility to act against them.”

For India there is a clear opportunity in the Pakistan team that Gilani has promised will soon arrive in New Delhi for consultations.

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