Monday, June 06, 2011

India: after Osama bin Laden

America's biggest victory in the war on terror changes nothing for India's lonely battle.

By Jason Overdorf
GlobalPost - June 6, 2011

Editor's note: The killing of Osama bin Laden has changed everything. Or has it? In this ongoing series Al Qaeda: What's Next?, GlobalPost senior correspondents worldwide investigate the uncertain future of global terrorism and religious extremism – from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Egypt, India, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet republics and beyond.

NEW DELHI, India — In the immediate aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden, India was torn between hopes and fears about how his death might change the rules of America's war on terror.

Initially, there appeared to be definitive proof that Pakistan's military establishment, if not its civilian government, was aiding and abetting terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda.

Given this proof, optimists in India's security establishment hoped that the U.S. might take aggressive steps to rein in the rogue state — perhaps even cut off the flow of military aid or move in to tackle Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group responsible for the 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai.

At the same time, pragmatists feared the vacuum left by Osama would allow a new militant leader to emerge, one who would force India into the cross-hairs.

Worse, it looked like this new leader might well be Pakistan's Ilyas Kashmiri, Al Qaeda's third-highest commander. But preliminary reports of Kashmiri's death by U.S. drones on Saturday has all but quashed that expectation.

In the weeks since the bin Laden raid, however, Washington has backed off its accusations that the top brass of the Pakistani army or the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) played a role in hiding Osama.

And as Washington back-pedals, India's hopes wither, leaving only the fear behind.

When U.S. President Barack Obama visited India in November, he made much of the "strategic partnership" between the United States and India. Just last month, U.S. Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano visited Mumbai and New Delhi to pay lip service to joint efforts in counterterrorism.

Despite these claims, however, Osama's killing has driven the point home: India is alone in its own war on terror.

"For decades, no movement of terror in India was acknowledged by the Americans," said Ajai Sahni, head of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management.

"Two thousand-plus people would be killed in a theater, and you'd be reporting two incidents, three incidents, five incidents with 20 killed, 25 killed — that's it. We used to laugh."

The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

India has suffered more terrorism-related casualties than perhaps any other country since Sept. 11, 2001 — none of them directly related to Al Qaeda.

In more than half of the 21 incidents in which the attackers could be identified, they represented Pakistan-based terrorist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) — all of which evidence suggests are supported, at least to some degree, by the Pakistani army and intelligence.

Confessed terrorist David Headley, testifying in the Chicago trial of an alleged co-conspirator, identified two active ISI officers who provided training and logistical support for the Mumbai attacks, though he later claimed that the spy agency's top leadership may not have known about the plan.

And from the U.S. diplomatic cables obtained and published by Wikileaks, it is clear that regardless of what they might have said publicly America's representatives in the region have never been naive about Pakistan's role in encouraging terrorists.

Yet almost before Osama's blood was dry, Washington signaled that it would continue to support its military regime, first with a damage control visit by Sen. John Kerry, and then with a surprise visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The message was clear.

"[Lashkar-e-Taiba chief] Hafiz Saeed is sitting pretty in [Pakistan], spewing venom, and the Obama administration is still thinking of devising the next financial fix to try and persuade Gen. [Ashfaq] Kayani to do the right thing," said Sumit Ganguly, a political scientist at Indiana University. "Our gullibility and cowardice in forthrightly confronting this duplicitous regime is simply boundless."

India's problem has never been Al Qaeda, and its enemy No. 1 was never Osama bin Laden, Ilyas Kashmiri or even Hafiz Saeed.

India's war on terror is a war against the military-intelligence establishment of Pakistan, which means that its enemy No. 1 enjoys the financial backing of the richest and most powerful nation in the world.

"Terrorism in India is a proxy war," said Sahni. "It's a covert war in which Islam has been used as a mobilizing force by the Pakistani army and Pakistani intelligence services and the Pakistani civil governments."

But even as America continues its policy of vociferously condemning and tacitly accepting Islamabad's insistent distinction between the terrorist groups whose efforts are focused on India and those waging global jihad, some of the most recent developments suggest that their ideologies are steadily converging. India-focused groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba may already be conducting joint operations with Al Qaeda itself.

Last week, for instance, Headley testified that he shifted allegiance from Lashkar to Al Qaeda at the urging of a former Pakistani military officer who told him Lashkar was "conducting the ISI's jihad and we should conduct God's jihad."

One of the central claims of the book published by Pakistani journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad just before he was murdered last week was that it was actually Al Qaeda No. 3 Ilyas Kashmiri who sold the script for the Mumbai attacks to the ISI, which then tapped Lashkar-e-Taiba to carry it out.

And bin Laden himself may have been working to establish a "grand coalition" of Pakistan-based terrorist groups under the umbrella of Al Qaeda when he was killed, according to the Guardian.

"LeT is not a franchise [of Al Qaeda]. Neither is JeM or HuJI," Stephen Tankel, a terrorism expert affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"[But] these groups coordinate and collaborate with Al Qaeda to varying degrees. All of them are part of the global jihad. They are also heavily influenced, especially in LeT's case, by the bilateral India-Pakistan relationship," he said.

At least from India's perspective, that puts America — which is trying to play both sides — on the wrong one.

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