India’s incoming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to invite his Pakistani counterpart, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to attend his inauguration in New Delhi today is a bold move intended to signal the new government wants to end the decades of confrontation in South Asia, although Sharif’s delayed response reflected his lack of control over the instruments of power in his own country, and suggests the Indian initiative will face tough resistance from Pakistan’s “deep state.”
But Sharif was there today. He too, it is clear, wants to end the cold war in the subcontinent.
Modi’s election is the most important political moment in India in decades. For the first time in over a quarter-century a prime minister’s own party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, will have a majority in the parliament and can pass significant legislation without gaining the backing of a host of smaller, mostly regional parties. Modi can try to jump-start the Indian economy, reduce government bureaucracy and corruption and get the country moving forward in a way his predecessors could not.
Inviting Sharif to the inauguration, along with the leaders of India’s other neighbors in South Asia, is also a bold move. It comes almost six years after the city of Mumbai was attacked by 10 Pakistani terrorists in the most important terror attack since 9/11. Between November 26 and 29, 2008 over 160 people died and over 300 were injured by the terrorists in the city's most luxurious hotel, the Taj Mahal.
Six Americans were among the victims.
The men who masterminded the attack are still free in Pakistan and are plotting more attacks. Years of good police work and investigation have established clearly that the plot was the joint work of Laskar e Tayyiba (LeT) and the Pakistani intelligence service known as the ISI.
In the last five years some good work has been done by India and America to bring to justice some of those involved like David Headley, the American who did the reconnaissance for the attack, and Sayeed Zabiuddin Ansari—alias Abu Jindal—who was in the Karachi control room in 2008 overseeing the massacre.
But the Pakistani mastermind of the Mumbai plot, LeT’s leader Hafez Saeed, remains free in Pakistan where he continues to be a darling of the ISI and regularly calls for more attacks on India and America. He has already mocked Modi’s election. There is an American bounty for information that could lead to his arrest but it seems unlikely he will be brought to justice anytime soon by Pakistan. The army and ISI protect Saeed and the LeT. The LeT and ISI apparatus is still training legions of terrorists like the 10 sent to Mumbai.
The ISI officers involved in the plotting are also free. Some have suggested that ISI involvement was probably only low level and that the top army commanders did not know what was going on.
As a former professional intelligence officer I find that argument ridiculous.
Running an American citizen like Headley for years was a major ISI operation that would have been overseen and monitored, if not micro-managed, by the very top of the service. They knew what the plan was and they approved it. The government of President Asif Zardari was never strong enough to try to tackle the ISI.
Modi has pledged to seek better relations with Islamabad but only if it cracks down seriously on the deep state’s patronship of terror. He has significant potential economic carrots and sticks to use with Sharif, who knows Pakistan needs to dramatically improve trade with India if it is to get its own economy moving.
But Sharif is also very aware that the last time he was prime minister, he tried to get peace talks moving with India—only to be sabotaged by the deep state. Early in 1999 Sharif invited then-Prime Minister Atal Vajpayee to Lahore to talk about reducing tensions. Less than six months later Sharif’s army chief, Pervez Musharraf, broke the cease-fire in Kashmir and started a small war around the town of Kargil. The small war threatened to escalate into a full-scale catastrophe with nuclear weapons until Sharif bravely came to Washington on July 4th and was persuaded by President Bill Clinton to unilaterally pull back the Pakistani army behind the cease-fire line. By the end of 1999 Sharif had been overthrown in a coup by Musharraf. The deep state had triumphed.
More than five years after Mumbai justice has yet to be served. The small fish have been brought to account for their role but the big fish are still free and dangerous. Modi and Sharif are smart to meet but the challenge will be for Pakistan to control its own hardliners. If not it is all but certain that LeT will stage another attack and force Modi to react forcefully after the outrage. That could put the entire subcontinent on the brink of catastrophe.