November 29, 2010

Pakistan's Implausible Deniability

The following piece was published by ANI on November 29, 2010.

It has been two years since the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, and India's policy-makers and its wider public are by no means reassured about the Pakistani leadership's renunciation of terrorism as a means of advancing its perceived interests. Indian officials have few doubts about the implicit involvement of senior Pakistani leaders in supporting terrorism, even if just as accessories after the fact. However, many intelligent and well-informed Americans continue to harbour reservations about the degree of involvement of various actors within the Pakistani establishment, and consequently the extent to which terrorism represents an instrument of Pakistani state policy.

The differences in outlook and approach between India and the United States towards Pakistani terrorism are compounded to a considerable degree by the failure to clearly establish linkages and ascribe responsibility of action to individuals and entities within Pakistan. India, for its part, has often failed to adequately communicate its concerns to influential sections of the American policy-making structure. This has resulted in American observers frequently finding symmetry between Indian and Pakistani actions and depicting Indian concern as reflective of instinctive animosity towards Pakistan.

The Pakistani leadership has benefited to a considerable degree from at least four layers of plausible deniability that cloak terrorism-related activities with links to the country. The first concerns identifying terrorist activity as Pakistani, that is, having association with either Pakistani territory or citizens. As the tragic attacks were unfolding in Mumbai two years ago, Pakistani officials suggested that the assailants were everything from local or homegrown Indian terrorists to Bangladeshis or Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers, and this refrain was unfortunately adopted by several analysts in the West despite an absence of information to support such conclusions. Further, Pakistani officials claimed that captured assailant Ajmal Kasab's reported hometown, Faridkot, did not even exist, and once it was found, initially denied that there was anyone by that name from the village. It took a journalist for a British publication, Saeed Shah, to identify Kasab's family in Faridkot in Okara district, less than two weeks after the attacks.

A second layer of plausible deniability arises when linking the Pakistani assailants to an established terror group within Pakistan. The Indian investigation of 26/11, wisely conducted in cooperation with other international agencies such as the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation, demonstrated links to Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a group known to be among the closest to Pakistani intelligence agencies. Indian and U.S. intelligence had honed in on LeT as the attacks were unfolding, based on Kasab's testimony. Pakistani officials corroborated this in their own investigation completed in mid-2009. Subsequent investigations, including the interrogation of David Coleman Headley provided further details concerning LeT's role.

Once traced to groups such as LeT, their links to the ISI also need to be established. Although Pakistani officials originally maintained that the 26/11 attacks had nothing to do with the Pakistani establishment, ISI Director-General Ahmed Shuja Pasha soon conceded to then-CIA director Michael Hayden that "rogue" elements of the ISI were involved in the planning and execution of the Mumbai attacks. The CIA later received independent confirmation that ISI was actively involved in the training for the Mumbai attacks. ISI has also been intimately involved in other terror plots against Indian targets, including those by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan.

Finally, the fourth layer of plausible deniability concerns the link between ISI and the Pakistan army. Many Western observers have reached the hasty and convenient conclusion that the ISI is a "state within a state" or a "rogue agency". However, the ISI is staffed and managed by the Pakistan army. General Ashfaq Kayani, currently the Pakistani army chief, was previously the ISI's Director-General.

Kayani's successor, General Nadeem Taj, was transferred - but not dismissed - after the United States confronted the Pakistan army with evidence of his involvement in the 2008 bombing on the Indian embassy in Kabul. He was replaced by General Pasha, the incumbent, who was hand-picked by Kayani. Further, the Pakistan army, much like the Indian armed forces, is an institution steeped in tradition and hierarchy. This makes it harder to imagine junior officers taking decisions of strategic importance completely independently of their superiors without serious consequences.

That each layer of plausible deniability was employed in the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks has, with subsequent revelations, supported the state's complicity. Both a cause and a result of Pakistan's multiple layers of plausible deniability is the deflection of responsibility for failures in security and governance by the Pakistani leadership, to the detriment not just of regional security but also the Pakistani people. Neither the military nor - with few exceptions - the civilian Pakistani leadership has made any effort in altering the dominant Pakistani narrative of victimhood, according to which all of Pakistan's social and political ills can be blamed on either the United States or India. And if, in the Pakistan army's own reading, it is unable to discipline rogue elements within its own hierarchy, this calls into question the army's claim that it is the most competent institution in Pakistan.

It is therefore in the shared interest of the United States and India and, for that matter, Pakistan itself, to ascribe responsibility to the senior leadership of Pakistan for acts of terror emanating from Pakistani soil and hold it accountable for its actions post facto. This necessitates countering Pakistan's narrative of victimhood with alternate narratives that stress the accountability and responsibility of the Pakistani leadership to act in the best interests of the country. For a state that remains so politically and economically vulnerable, the use of terrorism to further narrow objectives makes little sense.