Pakistan’s reponse to Mumbai: Beyond denial, and incapacity

6 Dec

“Nearly 200 people lost their lives in the serial bomb blasts in India’s financial capital of Mumbai …deliberate planned massacres have this cruel meaninglessness to them that rile up the hearts of even the stoics.,” I wrote two years ago right after the serial train blasts. Now another atrocity of similar magnitude has spurred me to write another column. The point remains the same.

Preface
The article is split in two parts. The first part analyzes whether Pakistan can do something to counter the media inflamed passions, while at the same time taking steps towards dealing with some of its own long-standing problems. The second part tries to address the reasons behind support for terrorism and the role of media.

Pakistan’s response
Irfan Husain, one of the most erudite and incisive columnists, writing in Dawn on the latest Mumbai blasts, finds Pakistan government’s denial of access to 20 terror suspects to India on basis of legalese is patently disingenuous.

“While defending Pakistan recently, our foreign minister was quoted as saying that we were a ‘responsible state.’ And when India presented our government with a list of the names of 20 people accused of terrorism against our neighbour, spokesmen immediately demanded to see the proof against them. This legalistic approach would have carried more weight had the Pakistani state shown this kind of respect for the rule of law in the past. But given the frequency with which ordinary Pakistanis are picked up and ‘disappeared’ by organs of the state without any vestige of due process, the claim to responsibility rings a little hollow.

Indeed, a responsible state would hardly allow the likes of Maulana Masood Azhar of the Jaish-i-Mohammad; Hafiz Saeed of the Lashkar-i-Taiba; and the Indian criminal Dawood Ibrahim to run around loose.”

While Mr. Husain frames the argument for handing over the 20 odd terror suspects rather minimally, focusing on the hypocrisy, and the definition of a ‘responsible state,’ a stronger argument can be made on basis of rather minimal costs for such an enterprise, and reasonable benefits to such a move. Here’s a brief analysis of benefits, and costs of such an exercise –

Benefits

  • The Mumbai terror attacks led to not only the resignation of a left of center Home Minister, Shivraj Patil, and middle of the line Congress Chief Minister and Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, but also widespread furor against the Congress government. Handing over suspects will likely strengthen the hands of moderates in India, and perhaps dampen the chances of BJP coming to power in elections next year. This argument is reasonably important given negotiating with sane people is a necessity, though arguably BJP at least for some of its time in power was predisposed to following a sane strategy.
  • It will be a potent gesture towards extremist organizations (domestic), India, and US. I believe any such handover ought to be accompanied by negotiations with India and US and perhaps getting some guarantees on issues of interest, and it ought to be done in blaze of media glory to burnish Pakistan’s image.
  • Handing over 20 people to India – even if they aren’t involved in the attacks – is probably the most painless of the gestures that Pakistani government can make to address the media inflamed demands of India and US.

Costs

  • As Mr. Husain argues, the arguments made about the inability of handover aren’t real — not because of legal issues, and not because of the stated weakness of Pakistani political establishment. The latter point needs further explication. Pakistani political establishment lacks power due to two reasons – lack of public support for measures which may be seen as blatantly catering to Indian whims, and existence of a powerful military with interests that are different than the political establishment. Politics is often circumscribed by incorrect perceptions of political costs; Public opinion constituencies can be ‘shaped’ to line up behind cogently argued, and aggressively marketed policy initiatives. It is the lack of political entrepreneurship behind good policy – which probably stems from rampant cynicism and preference for ‘safe’ choices – that dooms most policy exercises. There is perhaps even a genuine opportunity for some Pakistani leaders to craft constituencies by taking an appropriately framed response around handover of the 20 people to appeal to vast majority of Pakistanis.The second point would about weakness of political forces vis-à-vis military establishment is powerfully highlighted by Gen. Kayani’s refusal to allow ISI chief to travel to India, in spite of initial assurance by Gilani. However, it is but one instance and ought to be considered in lieu of the following facts – ISI chief is probably directly under the protection of the military, India’s demand for ISI chief was mostly a political maneuver and India would have used the visit for primarily political point scoring. On the issue of handing over suspects, it is quite likely that the PM and president can use the leverage provided by Indian and US pressure, and the media brouhaha, to negotiate some kind of deal.
  • Even if we assume that handing over all 20 people may be a particularly costly strategy for Pakistani establishment given its weakness, it is always possible to ferret out more than a few of these people by negotiating deals with others. I say this because we know that the interests of even ‘jihadi’ organizations are often contraposed.

While handing over terror suspects is perhaps an optimal strategy to quickly firefight the situation at limited cost, and to likely benefit, other strategies remain – including setting up a joint security force with India, actively cracking down on militant organizations in Pakistan, and increasing transparency through sharing information. While ideally all the measures should be pursued, handover of suspects, in being public, in its incontrovertibility in being a media event with characters, and in its explicitness in providing something tangible and coveted would likely be of the most help in the near term.

Caveat and long-term policy

The above analysis occasionally borders on being a limited cynical strategic model of signaling, with emphasis on lowering costs, and maximizing benefits. Sometimes lost within it is the argument that attacks provide politicians with an opportunity to initiate action that is in line with long-term interests of Pakistan. Strategic signaling should not be the guiding principle of long term policy. For thinking about long term interests, Pakistan will do well to think of what kind of policy it would like to implement if India (Kashmir) wasn’t on the table.

The past

Earlier in the article, Mr. Husain presents an overview of how Pakistani establishment has traditionally handled negotiations with the West over India.

“Years ago, a western diplomat wrote that Pakistan was the only country in the world that negotiates with a gun to its own head. Our argument, long familiar to aid donors, goes something like this: If you don’t give us what we need, the government will collapse and this might result in anarchy, and a takeover by Islamic militants.”

How much of the assertion is true isn’t generally analyzed, for few are ready to call the bluff that seems to gain in reality through recitation, than facts. Without discounting the perils to the Pakistani state, it is likely that the overly conservative assessments drawn by analysts aren’t warranted. There exists a political opportunity to create coalition in cities — as was powerfully demonstrated in elections earlier this year — to address trenchant problems, albeit nimbly.

Terror!
The fact that poverty is not a sufficient condition for terrorism is easily surmised. So is the inadequacy of inequality as an explanatory variable. We also know that arms and munitions take organization, access, and funds. The simplest version then of terrorism is the following – cynical political actors exploiting a select few feeling disenchanted. But there is more to the story. Why is there support for terrorism? The answer to that perhaps lies in the fury of the impotent. The fury of the potent (powerful), of course is never called such, and is mostly realized through indifference – be it 3 million Vietnamese dead or half a million plus Iraqi dead. And the fact that life continues to be abstract, and death more abstract still. At the heart of both emotions lies however how people typically engage with politics, especially in face of violence. The motivating force – though editorials may be full of condolences, and streets full of candle light vigils- isn’t concern for fellow people or loss, but seething personal anger amplified over countless discussions with the like-minded, and the similarly aroused. It is then that the perceived inequalities, the depravity of the act(s) start to loom much larger, and harsher response seems to look like a necessity.

Given this latent disposition of the public, media plays a critical role, in inflaming passions and extracting unreasonable demands from governments. While the West may be able to afford the toll that a 24/7 scandal obsessed media culture that does 99% of its reporting before less than a percent is known, given the extreme paucity of resources at disposal of third-world governments, they can ill-afford such distractions in policy making agendas. Such media coverage is all the more perilous for India – given the frail and fraying relations between Hindus and Muslims.