Unintended consequences of a bloody theatre

Sushant SinghOn the fourth anniversary of Mumbai terror attacks, public commentary on the failures that led to the three-day siege of the city has turned to scalding criticism. It is well accepted now that the terrorists — and their masterminds — exploited deep institutional failings within our system.

It revealed four broad systemic failures: of imagination, of policy, of capabilities, and of management. While it is easy to be wiser after the event, we must look backward in order to move forward.

India’s failures at Mumbai are much publicised but Pakistan’s motivations for these terror attacks aren’t. The popular view is the one put forth by the investigative journalist, late Syed Saleem Shahzad. In his book Inside Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Beyond Bin Laden and 9/11, Shahzad wrote that it was Al Qaeda who planned the Mumbai attack “through former Pakistan Army officers with help from the LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] without the knowledge of the ISI despite the fact that LeT was on ISI’s leash.

Unexpected: The Mumbai terror strikes grew beyond their planned scope, even for the LeT

The Mumbai operation was actually the revival of an old ISI plan. The idea was to deflect the Pakistan Army away from Waziristan and get it to fight India instead.”¬†That may not be true. Retired Brigadier Feroz Hassan Khan, in his recent book Eating Grass: The Making of the Pakistani Bomb — produced with the close cooperation of Pakistan Army — writes that Mumbai terror attacks showed “that the arc of terrorism had now expanded to the entire subcontinent. There was no greater opportunity for cooperation among regional states. But that was not to be. Instead India blamed the entire terror threat on Pakistan.”

Pakistan’s timing to tell the world “that the arc of terrorism had now expanded to the entire subcontinent” was perhaps spurred by an interview given by the then President-elect Obama to the Time magazine in October 2008. Obama had then said: “Working with Pakistan and India to try to resolve, and Kashmir, crisis in a serious way.

Those are all critical tasks for the next administration. Kashmir in particular is an interesting situation where that is obviously a potential tar pit diplomatically. But, for us to devote serious diplomatic resources to get a special envoy in there, to figure out a plausible approach, and essentially make the argument to the Indians, you guys are on the brink of being an economic superpower, why do you want to keep on messing with this?”

As is known now, Pakistan was desperate to get India — particularly Kashmir — included in the remit of Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke. Clearly Mumbai terror strikes were aimed to buttress that proposal by portraying India as a part of a single theatre of terror. Holbrooke’s plan was shelved after India’s strong opposition. And Obama administration also soon understood the realities of the region.

Moreover, as LeT operative and 26/11 co-conspirator Abu Jundal told the National Investigative Agency, Mumbai terror strikes grew beyond their planned scope. LeT neither expected nor wanted the attacks to continue for more than a day. As reported by the Times of India, “The euphoria gave way to fear within one day. There was talk among LeT bosses that too much international exposure could be counter-productive. And it did. LeT is under far greater pressure even in Pakistan than it was before the Mumbai attacks. From an enemy of India, it became an enemy of most of the West.”

The fears of the LeT and its controllers were not unfounded. Post-Mumbai attacks, US officials stopped viewing the LeT as a Kashmir-centric group. They realised its reach and threat, and rightly started considering it as a part of an international terrorist syndicate. Earlier this year, the US State department issued a $10 million reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Hafiz Saeed. As seen from the arrest of David Headley, the intelligence and anti-terror cooperation between India and the US has grown manifold since 26/11. Even Saudi Arabia, a close ally of Pakistan, has deported three terrorists to India in the recent past: Abu Jundal, IM activist Fasih Mohammed, and LeT operative A Rayees.

But these marginal successes from Mumbai are unintended consequences of a bloody theatre playing out far too long in the international spotlight. It is our inability to punish the perpetrators of the ghastly strikes who roam free in Pakistan, and our failure to learn from the episode and be prepared for the future that still rankles. 

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review

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