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The Samjhauta Express carnage has removed one doubt that has bedevilled Indian policy-makers for several years - role of Pakistani state and ISI, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

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Tragic, vicious and senseless as it is, the burning of the Samjhauta Express has removed one huge doubt that has bedevilled Indian policy-makers for the last several years. This is about the role that the Pakistani state, and specifically its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, may have played in the terrorist attacks that we have suffered, particularly in the last 16 months. This possibility, harped on by Indian security hawks and inflamed by our security agencies, has come close to stalling the peace process begun three years ago and consolidated by Pervez Musharraf and Manmohan Singh in Delhi, 21 month ago.

We have still to determine precisely who planned and executed the Panipat bombing. But what is beyond doubt is that it was not the Pakistani State. The train was on its way to Pakistan and the majority of its passengers were Pakistani. It is difficult to fathom what the perpetrators had hoped to achieve. It could have been to destroy the peace process by implicating ‘Hindu fundamentalists’ in a revenge attack for the Mumbai blasts, or the burning of the Sabarmati Express in 2002.

But it hasn’t worked, for almost no one in Pakistan is buying the idea. For them this has not been a lone occurrence. In the last three weeks there has been a suicide attack on the Marriott Hotel, Islamabad’s principal watering place, hours before the Indian High Commission’s Republic Day reception; a suicide bombing at Islamabad Airport; attempted bombings and gun battles with suicide squads in Sukkur and Karachi; the killing of a surgeon in Bajaur who was committing the blasphemous act of vaccinating children; threatened attacks in Islamabad that shut the city down; and a deadly suicide bombing that killed 15 in a Quetta courthouse last Saturday.

These attacks have all followed a categorical and public rejection of the entire peace process by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent body of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba on January 15. There may be more than one group behind them, but the connection is too important to ignore. The long expected jehadi assault on the Pakistani State may have begun.

The attack on the Samjhauta Express has undermined the premises upon which Indian attitudes, and to some extent policy, towards Pakistan have been based. Their bedrock was an unshakeable belief that Pakistan’s sole foreign policy aim was the weakening, if not destruction, of India. With that thrown into question, the search for an alternative hypothesis has begun. Predictably, our analysts have concluded that Musharraf may have tried to change the locus of India-Pakistan relations. But the army-ISI-jehadi nexus remains fundamentally unshaken. It may, therefore, be Musharraf who is on his way out.

The sudden, and carefully timed, spate of accusations from George Bush and his security chief, John Negroponte, that al-Qaeda has once again acquired offensive capability because of the patronage extended to it by Pakistan, has come in handy to buttress this hypothesis.

Fortunately, neither Prime Minister Manmohan Singh nor the foreign office seems to share this knee-jerk reassessment. Therein lies our sole remaining hope for averting Armageddon in our subcontinent. Armageddon threatens because Pakistan is now a besieged State. Not just Musharraf, but Pakistan’s entire civil society is under attack simultaneously: from below by terrorist nihilism garbed in the robe of ersatz religion, and from above by a superpower pushing it towards action that would be tantamount to suicide.

Historians will recognise what is happening: two ideological extremes — one professing religion and the other professing ‘democracy’ — are unintentionally collaborating to destroy a not-so-religious, not particularly democratic but sane and moderate centre. The Pakistani State, still just 35 years old, is too weak and unformed to withstand the twin assault by itself. But it might do so with India’s help.

Why should India help a country that has wished us ill? One answer, which our PM gave just a few days ago, is that we cannot choose our neighbours, and our fates are interlinked. If Pakistan is dismembered by rebellion or subverted from below we, with our 150 million Muslims, will be sucked into the maelstrom.

But there is a far more urgent reason. It is simply that 9/11 knocked out the underpinnings of Pakistan’s own five decade-old policy towards India. That is the root cause of its change of heart on Kashmir. Before the Americans forced them into war in Afghanistan, the Pakistani armed forces and its ISI shared a common purpose with the jehadis and the Taliban. But Pakistan’s complicity in the invasion of Afghanistan destroyed the compact. In the spring of 2002, Pakistani intelligence reported that elements of five jehadi tanzeems had split away from their parent bodies to form an elusive new group named (or code-named) Brigade 303, whose prime goal was to kill Musharraf. That attempt was finally made with deadly ferocity in December 2003 and came within a hair of success. Most of the perpetrators had had links with the Kashmir jehad.

It also did not take Musharraf long to understand the jam he had got into in Afghanistan. Pew Research Group opinion polls showed that Pakistan was consistently leading all other countries in anti-American sentiment. But by then, Musharraf had given three vast air bases to the Americans, ceded total oversight of Pakistani communications, allowed them to station 12,000 troops in Pakistan, and permitted offensive operations against Pashtuns from Pakistani soil. The build-up to the Iraq war heightened his unpopularity. Musharraf found himself trapped in a war without end, a victim of George Bush’s monumental mistake in Iraq.

Musharraf desperately needs to reduce his country’s exposure to danger. It may be far more important for him to extricate himself from Afghanistan. But it is far easier for him to do so from Kashmir. In Kashmir, he was the one seeking change, while in Afghanistan he is the one resisting the change thrust upon him.

Till a little over a year ago, I used to believe that we could take advantage of Pakistan’s bind to obtain an implementable settlement on Kashmir. Musharraf would then be able to pack up the Kashmiri jehad and parlay the rise in his prestige into a greater say on how to deal with Afghanistan. But his withdrawal from Waziristan has closed this option. In the next weeks he will either have to resume military operations in Waziristan against suspected al-Qaeda training camps or turn a blind eye as American drones and predators take up the job for him. Either of these could tip Pashtunistan into full-scale revolt. Indeed, the former governor of the tribal agencies, Ali Jan Mohammad Aurakzai, has already warned that the conflict in Afghanistan is becoming a ‘war of liberation’ against foreign invaders.

For Musharraf to stay on this course would be suicide. India cannot leave him alone upon it without at least trying to forge an acceptable alternative. The two countries must shed their visceral distrust of each other and use their influence with Afghanistan’s various factions to bring all contenders, including the Taliban, to the conference table — preferably one chaired by President Hamid Karzai. But this will prove infinitely easier if the two countries can first write finis to the Kashmir conflict. Time has almost run out, and there is little left to lose.

First Published: Feb 23, 2007 04:37 IST