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The Mumbai Massacre – An Opportunity For Clarity

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peace will once again come to the taj

“Rogue Elements” is a big word du jour right now. The idea that within an organization there’s often a fifth column conjures up all sorts of conspiracy theories about CIA spooks with their own twisted agendas. Usually, this stuff is confined to fiction or the far reachs of the blogosphere. But what happens when the lunatics truly have taken over the asylum?

The strong suspicion that Lashkar-e-Taiba, a group of jihadists once nurtured by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, ISI, is behind the horrific massacre in Mumbai a few days ago has turned the simmering distrust between India and Pakistan into a potential supernova.

There’s been an awful lot of talk about the ISI over the years, primarily because of their role in developing and protecting the Taliban as a way to stabilize their Afghan neighbor. But its the ISI’s link to Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the ongoing conflict in Kashmir, that have pushed it to the forefront of world attention.

The ISI is a multi-tentacled state within a state, created by the military just after the Partition, that trusts and has the trust of no-one, probably including its own members. Its not surprising that the ISI became truly powerful during the military rule of General Zia al Huq, and was fiercely protected by General Pervez Musharraf, in power until very recently. Its clumsy, anachronistic approach to statecraft feeds off Pakistan’s inferiority complex with a blustering nationalism that has led it into a multitude of miscalculations. Its latest excess has led us squarely to the tinderbox moment India and Pakistan face now.

Perhaps it would take a conspiracy theorist to surmise that the timing of the the Mumbai attacks is not a coincidence. The slow-moving negotiations between India and Pakistan over Kashmir had recently begun bearing fruit. The longstanding mutual distrust between the two nations was just beginning to dissipate when the Mumbai attacks took place. There is no way that preparations for the attacks by Lakshar’s former benefactors could have taken place without ISI’s knowledge. It’s well within the bounds of possibility to suggest that it probably could have stopped the attacks had it wanted to. The ISI feeds off fear. If fear begins to evaporate, the ISI’s raison d’etre is reduced, and the glue that holds it together might start to weaken. The prevailing wind was towards better relations between India and Pakistan, and perhaps the ISI wanted that wind reversed. Even if that is remotely true, it calls for serious action.

A report prepared for the British Ministry of Defence in 2006 cut to the chase. It stated that it’s time for the ISI to be disbanded. Musharraf’s response at the time was perhaps a little too categorical. “I totally, 200% reject it. I reject it from anybody – MoD or anyone who tells me to dismantle ISI.” Reading between the lines, it’s clear the the ISI had become too powerful to mess with, even for the Head of the Army and Pakistan’s then President.

Musharraf is now gone, and the faint hope that the ISI’s freedom to act could be at least resisted by pressure from the Army hierarchy has gone with him. But at least Musharraf’s departure has clarified the landscape of the Pakistani internal power struggle. The internal politics of Pakistan have been the world’s business ever since 9/11. And it’s pretty complex stuff. The Army is the enforcer, the civilian democratic apparatus is the cover, and the ISI makes sure everyone behaves in accordance with its old school nationalistic values.

The new civilian leadership of President Zardari is very weak, and can only sit by and watch as the ISI, a child of the military, the elephant in the room, goes about its business of creating ever more disastrous crises for Pakistan. It’s really no surprise that Zardari bounces from sympathy to bluster. The former is the moral response, the latter is the response the ISI require. But now we have reached crunch time. The course that the ISI could conceivably set Pakistan and India on is very dangerous and could develop its own unstoppable logic.

Is there any good news in all of this? Perhaps.

It often takes a crisis to focus the mind. If we’re going to change the dynamic in Pakistan and dramatically ease tensions with India, the logic of that prescient UK Ministry of Defence report should be examined again. The ISI needs to be replaced by a newer, more transparent intelligence organization. That’s not going to happen by force of arms. The Pakistani army would never take the chance, and the Zardari administration couldn’t engineer the ISI’s replacement in their wildest dreams. It has to be a peaceful process.

The best and perhaps only way to weaken the ISI to the point that it can be reorganized is to make it less relevant, an outmoded organization that is publicly seen as a brake on Pakistan’s progress. To do that means building up the one commodity that the ISI loathes more than any other. Trust. In a sense, the speculation that the ISI triggered the Mumbai attacks because of the growing trust between the two historical adversaries needs to be tested again. The United States must lead the charge for a strong and lasting relationship between Pakistan and India, not just for the good of each nation, but for our own national security and the future health of mankind. Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. It’s time for some serious shuttle diplomacy that makes the India/Pakistan relationship the top State Department priority. These two already have their two-state solution. It’s time that we helped them be good neighbors.

The US must put pressure on India to continue its restrained response to the Mumbai attacks and build renewed trust with its neighbor. If India is seen as magnanimous at its darkest hour, its goodwill with the Pakistani people, will rise dramatically. A new spirit of tolerance and cooperation could develop. India could aid Pakistan’s ailing economy. New power-sharing arrangements for Kashmir might emerge. And as for New Delhi’s internal logic in all this, India’s recent economic transformation would be put into screeching reverse if a hot and potentially nuclear war with Pakistan broke out. Such a conflict is simply not in India’s interest. The US must take full advantage of that fact.

The US must also offer to build the fabric of the Pakistani economy as part of Pakistan’s reward for restraint, trust and its government’s effort to isolate the ISI. The US must encourage the Pakistani authorities to talk openly about their concerns about the ISI, and privately offer aid, expertise and support in the building of a replacement. Pakistan is a poor country with few resources. A war with its larger neighbor could break it, and the nightmare of potential nuclear escalation is too awful for any to contemplate. Not just for Islamabad, but for anyone.

The stakes are very high.

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