By Candace Rondeaux
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, December 6, 2008
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Dec. 5 -- Fateh Khan doesn't know much about the fight against terrorism. He doesn't know much about the attacks that killed more than 170 people in Mumbai last week, either. But if there is one thing the Pakistani taxi driver feels sure about, it's that after three wars, India -- not terrorism -- remains the No. 1 threat to his country.
"Every Pakistani is clear that India is the enemy state," Khan said. "Pakistan has always tried to live at peace with India. But India has not tried for peace."
As more details emerge about alleged Pakistani links to the three-day siege in India's financial capital last week, a rare national unity is coalescing in Pakistan, centered on its old enemy. Although debate continues about how to manage attacks on politicians and government institutions by armed Pakistani groups, the Indian accusations against Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks have reminded many of India's 60-year role as the primary security threat here.
From Taliban commanders in the northwest to liberal businessmen in Islamabad, the capital, Pakistanis have this week been rallying around the flag. Tensions with India have prompted pledges of support for the government even from the Taliban, the growing insurgent force based on the tribal agencies of the country's North-West Frontier Province.
This week, several leaders of armed Islamist groups in that region vowed to lay down their arms against the government and stand with Pakistan's military in the event of a clash with India -- a turnaround for groups that in the past six years have killed more than 1,200 Pakistani troops.
"We may have a dispute with the Pakistan government, but we would set aside our differences if our homeland was threatened by outside powers," said Maulvi Nazir, head of a powerful Pakistani Taliban splinter group in the tribal area of South Waziristan. "We would raise a force of 15,000 tribal Taliban to fight on the side of Pakistan's armed forces. We would infiltrate 500 suicide bombers into India to cause havoc there."
That promise of assistance has not gone unnoticed in Islamabad.
In a briefing with reporters after the Mumbai attacks, several top officials of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, said they welcomed the offers of support from Nazir and Taliban leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud.
Only a year ago, Mehsud, who reportedly commands thousands of foot soldiers in his native South Waziristan, was Pakistan's most wanted man. Days after the assassination of former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Mehsud's name surfaced as the possible perpetrator of the Dec. 27 bomb attack that killed her.
Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist based in the northwestern city of Peshawar, said the current mood among insurgent leaders such as Nazir and others in the region is sharply anti-Indian and pro-Pakistani. But Yusufzai cautioned that an opportunistic impulse lies beneath the groups' recent avowals of support for the government against India.
"Right now, these are only statements. They are offering support, but they are also saying that in return for their support the military must stop its operations in the tribal areas, in Swat and other places," Yusufzai said. "They are trying to seize the moment and say, 'Look we're not anti-state, not anti-Pakistan.' But the government has to be careful. It should not respond by pulling out troops."
Many ordinary people in northwestern cities such as Peshawar are wary of expressions of national unity and more inclined to empathize with India's position, Yusufzai said. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and wounded in insurgent attacks this year, and the mounting violence has sensitized the population to the government's failure to rein in terrorists within Pakistan.
"There is a feeling that these jihadi groups need to be cut down to size," Yusufzai said. "People here have seen up close the results of their activities, so they are probably more inclined to believe some of the Indian accusations."
On Friday evening, a car bomb exploded in Peshawar, killing at least 20 people and injuring scores more, the Associated Press reported. Neither the motive nor the identity of the perpetrators was clear, but provincial government chief Haider Khan Hoti said "external forces" could be to blame -- a comment understood in Pakistan to mean India, the AP said.
Before the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan was already deeply divided over how to deal simultaneously with the internal threats posed by extremist groups and the external pressures from countries such as India and the United States. Since the attacks, that fracture has given rise to a heated public debate.
In a column Friday in the popular English-language newspaper Dawn, Pakistani defense analyst and author Ayesha Siddiqa noted the Pakistani Taliban's apparent overnight transformation from pariah to patriot amid the public furor over the events in Mumbai. "And hadn't we been informed earlier that all these 'patriotic' warriors were in fact murdering Pakistan's people and its brave soldiers?" Siddiqa wrote.
"We could cry ourselves hoarse about a foreign conspiracy to finish Pakistan, but it would not change the fact that Pakistan faces the threat of being internationally ostracized unless it begins to look inwards," Siddiqa added.
Since its founding in 1947, Pakistan has been ruled by a succession of military generals, wavering all the while between war and tense detente with India. Civilian governments have historically been short-lived and widely seen as ineffectual against threats to national security, particularly from India. But after the resignation this year of President Pervez Musharraf, the country's former army chief, expectations were high that the civilian government elected in February would reverse that perception.
Nearly four months after Musharraf stepped down, those hopes remain largely unfulfilled. Overwhelmed by economic crisis and the continuing insurgent threat, the new government has failed to mend the country's divisions and bring the military establishment to heel, experts say. Many of the militant groups propped up by the military in the 1980s and '90s have expanded their reach, and some still enjoy support from rogue elements within the military, according to U.S. military officials and intelligence experts.
Samina Ahmed, country director for the International Crisis Group in Pakistan, said the chasm between Pakistan's military and its civilian government undercuts the possibility of stability in the region as a whole. Pointing to several failed attempts by the civilian government this year to gain control of intelligence operations, Ahmed said conflict with India will remain imminent until the clash between the military and civilian cultures is resolved in Pakistan.
"What you see is a house divided, in which the military is hostile, and there's been a pushback from the civilian government, as well," Ahmed said.
After decades of diplomatic brinkmanship with India, many ordinary Pakistanis are skeptical of India's assertions of a Pakistani tie to the massacre in Mumbai. Yet many also appear to agree that another armed conflict with Pakistan's nuclear rival in the region should be the last option on the table.
"Whatever happened in [Mumbai] is a problem for the whole world. It's not just a problem for Pakistan or India," said Mohammed Ejaz, an Islamabad clothes vendor. "This should not reopen old wounds or hostilities, because any conflict would engulf the whole region."