International Affairs: Will a new India evade Pakistan’s trap?



Dr. Richard L. Benkin

Pakistan again delayed its prosecution of 26/11 terrorist Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi. Not two full days after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif reached an understanding on this contentious issue in Ufa, Russia, Pakistan reneged. It was not the first time that Pakistan backed off its commitments to prosecute Lakhvi, who is also a leader of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

Pakistani foreign policy adviser Sartaj Aziz’s statement that India had to provide “more evidence” for the probe to continue was only the latest Sartaj_Aziz_(cropped)delaying tactic by the Islamic Republic. Aziz might have claimed that what he said was consistent with the Modi-Sharif meeting, but it was a clear slap at India’s position that it already has given Pakistan all the information in its possession; and further, that what it has provided is compelling evidence that Lakhvi was the 26/11 mastermind.  Considering that Lashkar and Lakhvi are responsible for the murder of thousands of Pakistanis, logic would dictate that Pakistan would want to bring LeT’s reign of terror to an end.  After all, the primary duty of every government is to protect the nation’s people.

Evidently not for Pakistan.  Its official sponsorship of LeT, especially as an unofficial arm of its fight with India over Kashmir, has long been established.  Ashley Tellis, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted “It is important to end the farce of treating [terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba] as if they are truly free agents, acting on their own accord”; states like Pakistan give them “protection, succor, and support.”

Most knowledgeable observers long ago concluded that the Pakistani government, and especially its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), were involved in the 26/11 attacks. Lakhvi’s trial would make Pakistani involvement official and force its government to take real action or face international censure.  So they demur.

However, a particularly important fact this time is that India has a different leader with a well-deserved reputation for being tough and thoroughly committed to ensuring that the days of Indian weakness and meekness are behind for its 1.25 billion people.  Modi foreshadowed this in a campaign speech he gave in the far northeastern state of Assam.  The people of Assam were concerned that the large influx of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh was destroying the state’s physical and cultural environments.  He told them: “The people of Assam are troubled because of Bangladesh,” pm-modi_660_010315110259 and noting that he was from Gujarat which borders Pakistan he continued, “Pakistan is worried because of  me.”

Pakistan is worried about Modi, however, they might be testing him with this latest salvo. During his first 15 months in office, Modi’s foreign policy has focused on building bridges with other countries, including neighbors Pakistan and Bangladesh, beginning with his unprecedented invitation for the leaders of both  countries to attend his swearing in ceremonies. Given their contentious history, Modi’s attempt to re-set  relationships based on a bold, assertive, and mutually beneficial Indian future takes a great deal of agility. Traditional allies and adversaries need to see an open hand of friendship at the same time knowing that it can turn into a clenched fist. Modi has been doing that, all the time having to demonstrate that he is neither the bully some foreigners and domestic opponents believe him to be, nor the foreign policy weakling his predecessors often proved to be.

In 2010, I was in South Asia and observed the ongoing farce that culminated with the Indian Congress government’s capitulation.  India and Pakistan were supposed to hold talks aimed at resolving the 26/11 issue.  Shortly before the talks were to be held, however, Pakistan said it would not participate. In a rambling diatribe, then-Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that Pakistan was not behind attacks on its neighbor; India was. India, he said, was collaborating with the Taliban to de-stabilize. It is difficult to believe that Qureshi expected anyone except delusional partisans to believe what he said.

This was really a Pakistani shot across India’s bow; a strategic move intended to make themselves appear reasonable (‘we are in favor of talks’) without actually doing anything (such as resolving this issue or ending its support for terrorist attacks on India).

The Indian Congress government tried again and a “reasonable” Pakistan agreed; and true to form, only a few days before the talks, it threatened to

Shah Mahmood Qureshi
Shah Mahmood Qureshi

break them off if they included discussion of the 26/11 allegations.  Congress gave in and agreed to the meaningless talks that are not even a footnote in the subcontinent’s history.  Worse, it reiterated that India—perhaps until now—would not press the issue of Pakistani connivance in the third deadliest attack in India’s history and one that killed more people than all attacks in the previous year combined.

How Prime Minister Modi responds will tell us a lot about his administration going forward.  He cannot afford to risk the relationships he has built thus far, which would be an outcome favorable to Islamabad; nor can he afford to let the matter drop.  Do not expect him to wage war over it, though proof of Pakistani involvement would constitute an act of war on its part. But do not expect him to capitulate as did his predecessors. He already tried the UN Security Council on a related matter; and although China blocked him, Modi found a great deal of international consensus in his favor, even from nations that generally find themselves on opposite sides of an issue including the US and Russia.

A more fruitful avenue would be an aggressive campaign to Pakistan’s most important sponsor:  the United States.  Modi has built up a tremendous amount of goodwill on Capitol Hill where it would not be difficult to convince key lawmakers in both the Senate and House to hold public hearings on the matter.

That public airing of the evidence should tilt in India’s favor and could end with a strong statement by the Congress—something Pakistan could not ignore without serious consequences to it relationship (and financial pipeline) with the US.  This is also a Congress that is bound and determined to oppose terrorism and the states that sponsor it. Modi has made serious inroads on US policy in South Asia. The hearings would further damage Pakistan’s standing in the US.  He might also appeal to President Barack Obama, who fashions himself as a peacemaker and might be induced to broker India-Pakistan talks on 26/11.