Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s reported directive to authorities to conclude the probe into the Pathankot attack and resume the stalled Mumbai attacks case to tackle Pakistan’s growing isolation has created a buzz in India, coming as it did against the backdrop of heightened tensions.
But the experience of past decades has shown that it is easier said than done for a civilian government in Pakistan to get the military and intelligence set-ups to toe its line and crack the whip on jihadi groups, especially those that target India.
The Dawn newspaper’s extensive account of the civilian government’s “blunt, orchestrated and unprecedented warning” to the military leadership contains a lot of detail on the ruling PML-N party’s plans for action against banned militant groups.
In some ways, this is reminiscent of the scenario that existed soon after it became clear that the terrorists who targeted Mumbai in November 2008 were members of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). For almost two weeks, there were numerous reports in Pakistani newspapers and TV channels of LeT and Jamaat-ud-Dawah (JuD) offices being sealed and members of the two groups being taken into custody.
LeT founder Hafiz Saeed was placed under house arrest in December 2008, as were several of his key aides. The action was not taken not because of pressure from the US and India, but because the JuD was sanctioned by the UN Security Council’s al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee.
But less than six months later, Saeed was let off by the Lahore high court after a government law officer admitted before judges that the JuD was not a banned organisation under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Law.
The case against the seven suspects arrested for the Mumbai attacks, including LeT operations commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, has dragged on for more than seven years while the judge has changed eight times and a dogged prosecutor who pursued the case was assassinated in Islamabad in 2013.
A few days ago, the anti-terrorism court in Islamabad was debating whether it should travel to Karachi to examine a boat allegedly used by the attackers, or the boat could somehow be “presented” in Islamabad.
After India blamed the Jaish-e-Mohammed for the attack on Pathankot airbase in January, there were similar reports of JeM facilities being sealed. An FIR was filed by anti-terror officials in Pakistani Punjab and officials, including foreign policy chief Sartaj Aziz, said JeM chief Masood Azhar had been placed in “protective custody”.
Though India took the unprecedented step of allowing a team of Pakistani investigators, including an ISI operative, to visit the Pathankot airbase, nothing of substance emerged in the following weeks and months.
This too is not surprising as most cases in Pakistan’s anti-terrorism courts collapse because of poor investigation and prosecution and the intimidation of witnesses.
It was surprising to note in the Dawn report that it was Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the premier, who made a “bold intervention” at a meeting of civil and military officials and told ISI chief Lt Gen Rizwan Akhtar that the security establishment worked behind the scenes to free members of militant groups arrested by civilian authorities.
Indeed, not too long ago, in March 2010, Shahbaz Sharif had during a speech in Lahore asked the Taliban to spare his province from attacks because his government and the militants had similar positions on Pakistan’s sovereignty.
Such vacillation has only undermined the credibility of past Pakistani civilian government’s claims of exercising any control over either its military or the militant groups operating on its soil.