Mumbai: The Perils of Blaming Pakistan

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Asif Hassan / AFP / Getty

Pakistani fire fighters attempt to extinguish a fire after rioters set ablaze several shops at a timber market in Karachi on November 30, 2008. At least 13 people were killed and more than 70 injured after activists from rival political parties clashed across Pakistan's largest city Karachi, officials said.

Indian accusations of a Pakistani hand in last week's Mumbai massacre couldn't have come at a worse time for the government in Islamabad: As a Taliban insurgency continues to simmer in the tribal areas along the Afghan border, clashes on Sunday between rival political groups in the southern metropolis of Karachi killed 13 people and wounded 70. The country is on the verge of economic collapse, its desperate pleas for financial assistance from China and Saudi Arabia last month having been rebuffed, forcing Pakistan to accept loans from the International Monetary Fund — but those loans come with stern conditions limiting government spending, the implementation of which will risk inflaming further unrest. A suspected U.S. predator drone attack in the tribal areas on Saturday — one of dozens in recent months — has further alienated a population already suspicious of U.S. interference. Hardly surprising, then, that Pakistani leaders have reacted with alarm to politicians and the media in India pointing a finger at Pakistan-based terror groups over the Mumbai attack. Some foreign investigators have made similar claims, although not in any official capacity.

Most Pakistanis reacted with horror to news of the Mumbai killing spree starting Wednesday, having lived through equally devastating attacks on their own soil. But that initial sympathy quickly gave way to hostility as the focus of blame landed on Pakistan — a knee-jerk first reaction, rather than one based on any solid evidence. "It is a tragic incident, and we also felt bad about it as Pakistan is going through the same problem," says Abdur Rashid, a 67-year-old retired government servant in Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. "But it was really unfortunate to see that even before the operation [to clear out the attackers] was finished, the Indian government stated that Pakistan is involved. It sounds that the entire incident was concocted to punish Pakistan." See images of Mumbai after the siege

On Sunday, Indian media began reporting that the only attacker captured alive, a Versace-T-shirted 21-year-old by the name of Ajmal Amir Kamal, was Pakistani, and that he had identified all his fellow militants as being trained by the banned Pakistan-based militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba. Pakistanis are suspicious of these claims. "There is simply not enough evidence at this point to blame Pakistan," says Najam Sethi, editor of the English political weekly, the Friday Times. "No statement made under duress can be counted as 100% fact, and you can imagine the conditions under which this confession was made."

However, Sethi adds, "the Pakistan connection certainly can't be ruled out. These attackers were not hijackers negotiating with hostages. They knew they were on a suicide mission, and you can certainly find a lot of suicide bombers in the tribal areas." At the same time, the attackers clearly had a local connection, he argues, because out-of-towners could have had the intimate knowledge of the layout of Mumbai and of the targets to have caused so much carnage.

Amir Rana, an expert on Pakistani terrorist groups with the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, says he has heard some troubling reports, but says that no accusations should be leveled before a thorough investigation is completed. He cites several recent terrorist attacks in India that were initially blamed on Pakistan, only to have investigations later reveal that the perpetrators were aggrieved Indian Muslims, and in at least one case, Hindu extremists. Early accusations such as these, he worries, may only impede the close cooperation between the two countries necessary to resolve the issue.

"What we may actually be seeing here is an incident of transnational terrorism," he says. "The ideology is shared across borders, from Pakistan to India to Bangladesh." Terrorists these days are just as likely to meet in Dubai to discuss logistics, or in Katmandu to plan strategies. Training can take place not only in the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan, but also in Bangladesh, which also faces a mounting challenge from Islamic extremism. Weapons, distributed by a network of arms dealers that supply Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, Indian separatists groups and even Nepal's Maoists, are in easy reach. Neither the weapons, nor the tactics, of the Mumbai attackers point to any one country, says Rana. "For these kinds of attacks there is no need for training camps. There were no heavy weapons or guerilla tactics. The kind of training they needed could have been done in a single room."

Both Rana and Sethi agree that the Indian accusations are more likely to be driven less by evidence than by political imperatives. India is to hold elections in the coming months, and the ruling Congress party has taken a beating over the attacks — rival parties are saying the government was poorly prepared and had not cracked down hard enough on previous terrorist activities. "Elections are coming," says Rana, "So there are internal pressures to blame someone, and to show that it is not the government's fault. Pakistan is the obvious scapegoat."

The scapegoating of Pakistan may backfire, Sethi fears. Up until now, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has taken a keen interest in normalizing relations between the two countries, at great risk to his own standing. India and Pakistan are closer now to an enduring peace than at any point in their 61-year history together. "If anything happens, if India moves troops to the border, or threatens an attack, it could destabilize his government and derail everything," says Sethi.

Still, he hopes that calmer heads prevail, and that the Indian government response is little more than posturing, unlike in 2001 when a December attack on the Indian parliament was attributed to Pakistan, and the two nuclear-armed countries nearly went to war. India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has threatened to send Indian troops to the border with Pakistan if solid evidence emerges of Pakistani involvement. In that case, Pakistan would be required to move its own troops from the border with Afghanistan, where they are making headway in the fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militants, to the Indian frontier. "That would play into the hands of these terrorists," says Sethi. "If Pakistan and India start fighting, then the whole focus on the war on terror would be lost, and those militant groups would succeed. That would be tragic."

Asim Javeid, a 23-year-old student in Rawalpindi, agrees. "The Mumbai attack shows that terrorism is a common threat to both India and Pakistan. Unless both countries join hands and take measures to combat terrorism, we will not be able to defeat this curse."

With reporting by Ershad Mahmud / Rawalpindi