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Mumbai Terror’s Pakistani Trail

Why are the recent Mumbai attacks a nasty byproduct of internecine churning within the Pakistani military?

July 18, 2011

Why are the recent Mumbai attacks a nasty byproduct of internecine churning within the Pakistani military?

The latest terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which have claimed 19 lives, are reminders that the jihadist fire that has consumed South Asia for decades is raging and as lethal as ever. The timing of the blasts and their trademark serialization give rise to plausible suspicions that they were plotted and executed by religious fundamentalist outfits allied with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Circumstantial evidence and intercepted messages from India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) point towards involvement of the United Nations-proscribed Pakistani terrorist conglomerate Jamaat-ud-Dawa (the parent body of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba) in the series of blasts that shattered Mumbai’s calm on Wednesday evening.

The Jamaat is known to be a veteran instrument of the ISI, which has been used as an extension of statecraft to further Pakistan’s strategic goals in Afghanistan and India. Within India, an informal consensus suggests that the immediate executors of the attacks were the “Indian Mujahideen,” an entity close to the ISI and the Jamaat.

Why would the Pakistani spy agency abet such an attack in India’s commercial capital after the ice had only just begun to thaw between the two countries, which were at loggerheads since the much bigger Mumbai terror attacks of 2008?

After the American Navy Seals’ lightning raid in Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden, the morale inside the Pakistani military and intelligence community hit an all-time low.

The humiliation of failing to detect the daring American operation lowered public confidence in Pakistan towards the formerly almighty armed forces. Faced with a dilemma of admitting complicity in sheltering bin Laden or avowing incompetence and ignorance about his hideout, the Pakistani military chose the latter explanation as the lesser evil.

But the fallout from acknowledging that the ISI and the army did not know bin Laden was hiding right under their noses and that they could not detect the U.S. swoop-in-and-out operation has been devastating.

The jihadist attack on the high-profile Mehran Naval Base in Karachi shortly after bin Laden’s elimination further compounded the crisis within the Pakistani army by revealing that no citizen of that country can feel safe in an atmosphere of open war by anyone against everyone.

Disclosures by the discredited Pakistani nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, that the army’s crème-de-la-crème also raked in millions of dollars by selling nuclear technology to North Korea have further lowered the esteem of the Pakistani military establishment in the eyes of civilians.

However, the Pakistani military’s top echelons always worry less about public perception than about losing the confidence of their 12 corps commanders and middle-ranking officers who could upstage generals through coordinated internal coups.

So while the loss of credibility among the general public has dented the army’s already-tarnished image, the dissatisfaction within the rank-and-file of the security forces since the Abbottabad and Mehran incidents is a bigger existential threat to the Chief of the Army, General Ashfaq Kayani, and his confidantes.

One of this author’s fellow columnists for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times, Syed Saleem Shahzad (a Pakistani national), was abducted and brutally murdered near Islamabad right after he reported how the Mehran base attack was a jihadist act of protest against an ongoing purge inside the Pakistani navy aimed at pro-al Qaeda and pro-Islamist officers. The nature of Shahzad’s exposé was extremely damning for the military and the ISI, as it laid bare the depth of penetration of Pakistan’s armed forces by jihadist elements.

That no less a friend of Pakistan than the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. military, Admiral Mike Mullen, could publicly accuse the Pakistani military of “sanctioning” Shahzad’s killing is a demonstration that the ISI and its hatchet men can go to any extent necessary to preserve their institutional privileges and secrets.

Is the outrage in Mumbai a nasty byproduct of this internecine churning within the Pakistani military? There is a likelihood that the Mumbai blasts of Wednesday were commissioned by the ISI’s handlers to assuage dissenting voices within the Pakistani military, who are believed to be plotting to overthrow General Kayani since the embarrassing turn of events beginning with Abbottabad.

Like gangster kingpins who need to display exemplary brutality to keep the faith of their doubting subordinates, the top brass of the ISI and the Pakistani army could have given the green light to the Mumbai attacks to assure all dissident internal voices that their shared agenda of jihad against India has not been forgotten.

Until Wednesday, India had enjoyed a spell of relative security since the “26/11” terrorist horrors of 2008. With the exception of one ghastly attack on a bakery in Pune in February 2010, there has been an extended period with no success for jihadi terrorists.

While the Indian government could claim that this lull was a result of improved internal security measures and intelligence sharing, it is equally a result of the total chaos that prevailed inside the ISI and the Pakistani military owing to the escalating war in Khyber Pakhtukhwa province, bordering Afghanistan, and the revolt of the Pakistani Taliban against their own paymasters.

Meeting American demands and parrying them through elaborate “double games” became the central preoccupations of the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies over the last two years. But the post-Abbottabad scenario has thrown up a situation wherein the ISI feels that hitting India hard is necessary to remind army and navy officers as well as jihadist outfits that their original purpose of countering India’s rise is still on track.

The theory that some “rogue officers” within the ISI and the Pakistani army and not the entire military apparatus per se are to blame for terrorist attacks in India is almost clichéd now. The slippery politics of the Pakistani military are such that a “moderate” officer can overnight become an Islamist officer to save his own skin or to balance against rival peers who may be plotting his downfall. Former army chief and ex-President, General Pervez Musharraf, was brilliant at this double act. The “rogues” are basically chameleons caught in a vicious cycle of factionalism and vengeance.

In the aftermath of yet another gory episode of terror in Mumbai, India will need to devise internal as well as external diplomatic and covert countermeasures to reduce the likelihood of repeat attacks. These strategies will have to be plotted out through careful parsing of the internal schisms inside the Pakistani military, with an eye toward exploiting the sinking feeling that is permeating through General Kayani’s de facto empire.

The chokehold of the Pakistani army over its state and society is presently at its most precarious point. Indian and international policymakers will have to fight the terror emanating from the cornered tigers of the ISI — and must also plan to capitalize on the hopeful long-term possibilities entailed by the weakening of Pakistan’s military intelligence complex.


The ISI feels that hitting India hard is necessary to remind doubters that their original purpose of countering India's rise is still on track.

The humiliation of failing to detect the American operation that killed bin Laden lowered public confidence in Pakistan towards the armed forces.

India will need to devise internal as well as external diplomatic and covert countermeasures to reduce the likelihood of repeat attacks.