Islamabad diary: Indian tragedy, Al Qaeda triumph

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By Ayaz Amir

Piercing through the clouds of outrage and emotion evoked by the tragedy visited on Mumbai, the outlines of the wider consequences of this dreadful event are becoming clearer. Whether Al Qaeda is involved or not – and we must wait for the evidence to come in before jumping to conclusions—the unfolding consequences of this dark event are proving to be a triumph for Al Qaeda and its strategic aims and a grave setback for the broad coalition, led by the United States, which is trying to defeat and destroy Al Qaeda, so far, it has to be said, not all that successfully.

Osama bin Laden, if he is still around, must be rubbing his hands in glee, as would his second-in-command, Ayman Al Zawahiri, for at a stroke the regional ‘war on terror’ coalition lies unhinged. The way India and Pakistan are responding to this tragedy could have been scripted by Al Qaeda. As so often before they are at each other’s throats once again, their hesitant moves towards a more enduring rapprochement in shreds. Indeed there is no shortage of hawks all too eager to believe that they are closer to outright hostilities than at any time since the Kargil flare-up in 1999.

It takes no genius to figure out what renewed Indo-Pak tensions mean for the Pakistan army’s ongoing operations against Taliban and assorted militants in the tribal wild west along the Afghan frontier. The Pakistan army’s heart was never in this fight in which it found itself engaged only because of overwhelming American pressure. Now with India sounding aggressive and thirsting for some sort of revenge in the wake of the attack on Mumbai the Pakistan army has a valid and pressing reason to turn its attention to something closer to its ethos and training: the threat from India.

Let us not forget that Al Qaeda had declared war on Pakistan for being an accomplice of the United States, the terror bombings, suicide attacks and assassination attempts mounted in Pakistan being a response to this perceived role. But what the terror bombings and suicide attacks inside Pakistan could not lead to, the Mumbai attacks look like achieving: drawing Pakistan’s attention away from the western theatre to the eastern front. Whom does this situation suit? Al Qaeda.

The US too could have done without this distraction. When it has its hands full in Afghanistan, it suddenly has to step in and defuse tensions between India and Pakistan. Level any accusations against Pakistan—that it is a haven for terrorist groups, etc—but its support is crucial for America’s increasingly problematic war in Afghanistan. If the Pakistan army pulls out the four or five divisions deployed in and around FATA, the Taliban heave a sigh of relief, their insurgency in Afghanistan gets a boost and America’s Afghan war becomes that much more un-winnable.

This is strategy, the indirect approach, on a grand scale. The Madrid train bombings got Spain out of the American coalition in Iraq. Spain’s contribution to the coalition was largely symbolic but with the train assault even that came to an end, handing Al Qaeda a psychological victory. The Twin Towers attack of Sep 11, 2001, led to a situation which the perpetrators or the handlers of that terrible event could scarcely have foreseen: throwing the world into turmoil and pitch-forking the US into two wars—Afghanistan and Iraq—with whose unintended consequences it is still trying to grapple.

America’s global supremacy was unchallenged in 2001. There were no rivals even remotely on the horizon. Getting entangled in these distant adventures has bled the US and diminished its international standing. What was supposed to be the American century seems now after Afghanistan and Iraq not all that certain a proposition. Did Mohammad Ata and his companions or Osama bin Laden — if we subscribe to the belief that the planning for Sep 11 took place on some remote mountain peak or cave in Afghanistan–have these consequences in mind when they were planning for their scarcely believable undertaking? Stretches the imagination.

Terrorism when used as a political weapon — and no one in recent history has used it in more masterly fashion than Al Qaeda — works in ways different from conventional warfare. What one seeks to achieve in conventional war is the destruction of (1) the enemy’s will to fight and (2) the destruction of his fighting capability. Terrorism works in different ways, triumphing not by the amount of destruction it can cause — armies engaging in war cause far more havoc — but by leading the object of terrorism into irrational behaviour.

It can be argued that the US had a legitimate reason to attack Afghanistan because the Taliban leadership had given refuge to Osama bin Laden who had not only, in a manner of speaking, declared war on the US but was also behind the September 11 attacks. Although there is a counter-argument that even from its own standpoint the US would have been better served to take out bin Laden by other means, a case can be made out for America’s Afghan war. But none whatsoever for America’s Iraq venture which had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or terrorism and everything with misguided imperial overstretch. To the extent that this was an irrational response, it played into Al Qaeda’s hands.

Mumbai falls into the same category in direction if not in scale. Because by leading India into irrational behaviour it serves Al Qaeda’s interests, whether, as already noted, Al Qaeda is involved or not. Let it also be said that the feelings being presently manifested in India towards Pakistan are only partially connected to Pakistan’s alleged involvement in Mumbai. They are also a throwback to the past from where the emotion arises that if only India can get the US on board this is an unrivalled opportunity to teach Pakistan a lesson.

Whether Pakistan can be taught such a lesson or not is a separate issue. Lost in the heat of the moment is the realisation that any weakening of Pakistan will fatally undermine the US’s war against the Taliban…to the point of making the US presence in Afghanistan untenable. Which is not to say that the world owes Pakistan a living or that because of its real or presumed strategic importance Pakistan can get away with wilful or erratic behaviour. It is only to point out the dangers of irrational behaviour which serves neither India’s interests or Pakistan’s.

Of course Pakistan has a problem of home-grown militancy on its hands. There’s no denying it or, more accurately, we should no longer be in a state of denial about it. But this is not a problem which has developed overnight. It has been decades in the making with the US also involved in its initial growth and nurturing. It won’t go away in a hurry.

At the same time there is another angle to this problem. Pakistan’s American connection is making it worse by enabling the militants to claim that far from pushing extremism they are battling American domination, a claim strengthened by America’s presence in Afghanistan and its drone attacks on Pakistan’s tribal areas.

India can be taken to task for the many skeletons rattling in its cupboards — mass repression in occupied Kashmir, the growing alienation of Indian Muslims which among other things is giving rise to a brand of militancy indigenous to India. But this may not be the time to go into all this. Suffice it to say that by stoking bellicosity and seeking to enlist American help to drive Pakistan into a corner India is playing a short-term game which can only be grist to the mills of Al Qaeda.

These are testing times for Pakistan, putting heavy demands on its people and its leaders. Never was there a greater need for unity and clear thinking. President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani, relatively new to the responsibilities thrust on them by fate or whatever, give the impression of swimming in waters too deep for them. Their initial response to the pressure from India could have been better thought through and better coordinated. But for better or worse they are the leaders Pakistan has and the people of Pakistan have no other choice at present but to put up with them.

However, they can make things easy for themselves if they avoid the temptation of solo flights for which they are scarcely equipped and if they rely more on institutionalised decision-making.



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