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IDSA COMMENT

Countering Terrorism as a Joint Venture?

September 27, 2006

The outcome of the meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf at Havana has evoked mixed reactions from various quarters within both India and Pakistan. It has also raised a number of questions to which there are no easy answers. The meeting, which took place on September 16 on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit, was obviously successful as it resulted in the resumption of the dialogue process, which had stalled in the aftermath of the Mumbai train blasts in July 2006. This forward movement assumes significance in the face of deteriorating bilateral relations as a fallout of the terrorist strikes in Mumbai. Worsening relations were evident in the maltreatment meted out to an Indian diplomat based in Islamabad in response to which India asked one of the staffers of the Pakistan High Commission to leave New Delhi. Questions also arose over the way Asma Jehangir, a well-known Pakistani lawyer and human rights activist, was treated while she was in India to attend a seminar. She felt affronted as the police frisked her hotel room, and Manmohan Singh subsequently tendered an apology to her. Such events in the last few months aggravated tensions and keeping in mind past precedent, the meeting between the two leaders was viewed with cautious optimism by analysts.

The Joint Statement issued by the two leaders includes a reiteration of earlier commitments to take the dialogue process forward and an agreement that their Foreign Secretaries would resume the composite dialogue soon. On the Jammu and Kashmir issue there was concurrence about the "need to build on convergences and narrow down divergences." While these elements of the Joint Statement have caused no surprise and seem to emphasise recourse to traditional positions taken by the two sides, one aspect that has caused consternation among certain sections in India is the decision to "put in place an India-Pakistan anti-terrorism institutional mechanism to identify and implement counter-terrorism initiatives and investigations." Added to this is the statement by India's foreign secretary designate, Shiv Shankar Menon, that "Terror is a threat to Pakistan. It has been a threat to India for a long time now. Both of us need to deal with it." This statement is clearly a marked departure from the earlier stance consistently maintained by India. A statement of this kind, which would otherwise have been unpalatable in India by any standard measure, connotes a few pointers. First, it seems to have created some space for India to include symbolic or soft gestures in its diplomatic negotiating strategy. Second, it is perhaps an attempt at mood gauging by the Indian side to see what kind of reaction it begets from Pakistan. Third, it tries to convince the international community about India's sincere commitments and attempts to not only address the issue of terrorism but also solve outstanding issues with Pakistan.

Reactions among some sections of the Pakistani intelligentsia have been positive. An editorial in a leading Pakistani newspaper Dawn has referred to the meeting between the two leaders as a "Breakthrough" and expressed the hope that the joint mechanism would "help avoid misunderstandings" between the two countries. Pakistan's Foreign Office spokesperson Tasnim Aslam, while speaking to the media in Islamabad about the mechanism, stated that, "The purpose is to help the two countries prevent acts of terrorism."

However, it is difficult to believe that the joint mechanism will be successful, given the linkages of the Pakistani establishment, including the Army and the ISI, with Islamic extremist groups. While Musharraf has been careful to project his increasing disdain for jihadi organisations, this is not commensurate with actions taken on the ground with respect to organisations pursuing an anti-India agenda. Soft targets like civilians within India continued to face the brunt of terrorist attacks through 2005-2006. While external pressures may force Musharraf to adopt a moderate posture, any forward movement towards counter-terrorism would be hamstrung due to the internal compulsions inherent in the nature of the Pakistani state. Musharraf's ability to deliver would depend on whether he is able to take his main constituency, the Army, along with him. But as of now the intentions of this dominant player in Pakistani politics, of which the President himself is a significant component, is suspect. The doubt persists as to whether the military's strategy of aggregating power by using jihadi organisations as a means of achieving foreign policy goals will be dumped. In fact, this qualm is evident in the opinion in India, which has been divided post-Havana. Former Intelligence personnel like B Raman and Ajit Doval and former diplomat G Parthasarathy have been critical of the Indian government's change in stance.

On the other hand, noted strategic analyst K Subrahmanyam is of the view that the joint mechanism is "a step forward" as "Pakistan has accepted that terrorism is a problem between the two countries" and would have to "answer specific allegations and charges." While the Indian government continues to work towards eliminating the scourge of terrorism, only time will reveal the efficacy of the joint mechanism, the modalities of which are not fully identified. Questions arise about whether Pakistan would be more willing than it has been till now, to accept or act on terrorism related information supplied by India. It is more than apparent that Pakistan's leadership has increasingly been worried about internal security and has been undertaking efforts to clamp down on terrorist elements fomenting trouble within the country. Yet, it has continued to use terrorism as an instrument of strategic objectives vis-à-vis India, either by directly promoting terrorism within India, or through third countries like Bangladesh or Nepal. What is common knowledge now, and what was reported in the Pakistani media at the time, is that anti-India terrorist organisations were allowed to carry out relief activities in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) after the October 8 earthquake last year. Recent reports in the Pakistani newsmagazine Herald (August 2006) attest to the fact that organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad have registered as relief organisations adopting different names. By ordinary logic such activities would be in contravention of the most significant aspect of the joint statement issued by then Prime Minister Vajpayee and Musharraf on January 6, 2004, wherein the Pakistani president gave the assurance that "he would not permit any territory under Pakistan's control to be used to support terrorism in any manner." The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesman, articulating the government's position after the Mumbai blasts, had stated that, "India remains committed to the dialogue process with Pakistan but this can be sustained and can yield results only if Pakistan acts against groups operating from territory under its control, in accordance with its solemn commitments enshrined in the Joint Press Statement of January 6, 2004."

While the agreement to create a joint mechanism for fighting terrorism can provide shape and substance to the declared willingness of Pakistan to co-operate with India in countering terrorism in the region, there is considerable scepticism in India whether the key players in the game of terrorism in the Pakistani establishment will allow this to happen.