Glib Pakistan talks its way out of trouble


WASHINGTON: Pakistan's envoys and spin meisters have taken to the air in the west in a glib effort to counter the universal disgust and opprobrium the country is attracting for its alleged role in yet another terrorist carnage in the sub-continent.

Islamabad has wheeled out Hussain Haqqani, its suave envoy in Washington DC, to challenge the growing conviction in western government, intelligence, and strategic circles that Pakistan’s toxic and out-of-control intelligence agency ISI, or rogue sections within, it are responsible for the frequent attacks on India.

Unnamed American intelligence and counterterrorism officials are confirming to the US media on background what Indian officials have been asserting - that there is mounting evidence that Pakistani terrorist groups, most likely Lashkar-e-Taiba(LeT), was responsible for this week's brutal attacks in Mumbai. The LeT, founded by the ISI, is also seen as its proxy or fighting arm.

But where the charges tail off is in determining the extent of Pakistani government involvement and culpability in this venture. And this is where Islamabad is skilfully using Haqqani, a trenchant critic of the Pakistani military and its spy agency, to defuse the situation. Haqqani is acknowledged to have written one of the most intellectually honest books about the collapsing country and carries some credibility in the west.

Although Haqqani has been a critic of Pakistan's military regime and its tactics in the past, he insisted in a statement and on television interviews this week that the current civilian regime in Islamabad was "confronting the menace of terrorism with great vigour," and "it is unfair to blame Pakistan or Pakistanis for these acts of terrorism even before an investigation is undertaken." Haqqani also said Pakistan was now cooperating with India in investigations, while implicitly acknowledging the terrorist associations of previous militarized regimes, and asserting he did not want to talk about the past.

Pakistan also wheeled out Munir Akram, a former Pakistani envoy to the UN known for his corrosive views on India. True to his past form he blamed indigenous groups in India for the carnage in a radio interview. "It's almost a Pavlovian reaction from India. Every time something goes wrong in India, Pakistan is blamed... there are so many indigenous problems in India, so many divisions. So it's very difficult straightaway to make connections with external forces," Akram said.

Pakistan might have gotten away with such facile assertions and protestations of innocence and cooperation had there been only Indian victims, but with a large number of foreigners killed, western analysts ruthlessly scrutinized the country's past perfidies and record of terrorist activity that caused it to almost being declared a state sponsor of terrorism in 1993.

Terrorism analyst Peter Bergen among others reminded US audiences that underworld don and the terrorist responsible for Mumbai serial blast in 1993 that killed 258 people was still holed up in Karachi, ostensibly under ISI protection. The Pakistani spy outfit, which is now attracting calls for being declared a terrorist organization, is also reported to have protected Omar Saeed Sheikh, an accused in the Daniel Pearl murder, and until he was eliminated in a predator strike last week, Rasheed Rauf, an accused in the plot to blow up trans-Atlantic airliners.

While spinmeisters such as Haqqani and Akram bandy around cliché's like Pakistan being a frontline ally if US etc, critics says they continue duck questions on why a majority of the world's terrorist strikes, including 9/11, the US Embassy bombing in Africa, the attack on USS Cole, and innumerable terror strikes in India, are tracked back to Pakistan.

They are also unable to explain why terrorists like Dawood Ibrahim, Masood Azhar, and Omar Sheikh are not prosecuted or extradited, and instead live under ISI protection. Nor do they address the question of why Pakistani school books still described Hindus and Jews in derogatory terms.

The most damning indictment of Pakistan, challenged only feebly by Islamabad, is the US assertion that the ISI was associated with the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul recently that killed more than 60 people, including a young Indian diplomat.

About the only thing analysts seem to agree is that the current civilian government may not be involved in the Kabul bombing or Mumbai carnage, given its record of peace overtures by the current president Asif Ali Zardari. Lisa Curtis, a former CIA analyst now with the Heritage Foundation, says many Indians question whether the Pakistani security establishment supports his (Zardari's) efforts to improve relations.

The point was proved almost immediately when Islamabad quickly downgraded the offer to send the ISI chief to India (to a lower level official), heeding the call from Islamists in Pakistan that it would be seen as humiliating summons from New Delhi. It also appeared that the Pakistan military itself was being hard-nosed against the civilian government's effort to make ISI more accountable, resulting in the downgrading of the visit.

US experts are now urging greater intelligence cooperation between Washington and New Delhi to tackle the ISI-sponsored terrorist menace in the region. "Despite their agreement on the need to aggressively contain terrorist threats, Washington and New Delhi have failed in the past to work as closely as they could to minimize terrorist threats," Curtis wrote in a Heritage paper this week. "This failure is largely the result of divergent geo-strategic perceptions, Indian reticence to deepen the intelligence relationship, and US bureaucratic resistance toward elevating counterterrorism cooperation beyond a certain level."

"US and Indian counterterrorism interests are increasingly converging, and Wednesday's attack could help jolt both sides into even closer coordination with the goal of preventing further regional and global attacks," she added.

President Bush, who returned to the White House from Camp David, is scheduled to make a formal televised statement on the Mumbai attack Saturday afternoon.