No one expected Peshawar’s moment to be ruptured so soon. Even as India and Pakistan were coming to terms with the enormity of the massacre of children comes the news that Mumbai’s 26/11 attack mastermind Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) was granted bail by a Rawalpindi court.
This prompted outrage in both countries and strong responses from the MEA and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Nawaz Sharif’s government has attempted some damage control, detaining Lakhvi for three months under the ‘maintenance of public order’ legislation.
Lakhvi’s detention will be cold comfort to India unless Pakistan uses the opportunity to build a strong case, which it has failed to do despite the dossiers India has passed on, and the incriminating accounts of the LeT’s David Headley, who testified at a federal trial in Chicago. The 26/11 trial has been delayed with the transfer of seven judges; it stands frozen in an intimidating climate that saw one prosecutor shot dead.
But it is the job of the government to protect institutions and create an enabling climate for the justice system to operate in rather than let violent non-state actors run amok. Notwithstanding friendly rhetoric towards India till recently, Mr Sharif has made no efforts to distance himself from the Jamaat-ud-Dawa/LeT and Hafiz Saeed, with whom he has longstanding links.
Lakhvi filed a bail plea on Wednesday while the government was coping with the Peshawar attack, demonstrating that the group is a law unto itself and does not think twice about embarrassing its patrons. Mr Sharif must realise that even if he has access to strands of militant leadership, the wider jihadi ecosystem operates on a different logic, beholden to ideological commitments and not to political connections.
Parts of the Pakistani establishment assume that they can use jihadis, like Saeed, for their purposes; others believe that the government cannot take on all jihadis at one go, arguing that they must combat anti-state groups like the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) first before targeting others. Both assumptions are downright wrong. Mr Sharif and the Pakistan army cannot wait for the LeT to spread its poison that damages Pakistan’s present and future.
In some ways, deploying drones and a ground offensive against the TTP are easier than tackling the LeT, which takes advantage of proximity to the establishment and corrodes Pakistan from within. As scholar Barnett Rubin says, “the test of Pakistan’s seriousness about terrorism is how it treats Hafiz Saeed, not TTP”. There’s no better proof of intent than the prosecution of Mumbai’s attackers.