Pakistan terror probe will decide next turn in ties with India

The Hindu, Friday the 30th January, 2009

Siddharth Varadarajan

New Delhi: When Islamabad reverts to India next week with the results of its initial investigation into the alleged involvement of Pakistani nationals in last November's terror attacks in Mumbai, a lot more will be riding on its reply than just the fate of those who might be involved. At stake is the immediate trajectory of the bilateral relationship. Any sign that Pakistan is rejecting or stonewalling Indian claims of "elements" within its territory being involved in Mumbai would likely trigger a fresh cold wave in an atmosphere that is already dangerously frigid. But if Islamabad is able to demonstrate that its investigators are seriously pursuing investigative leads provided by India and other countries, the stage could well be set for the gradual easing of tension.

Despite the occasionally harsh rhetoric from both sides, India-Pakistan ties have been in a holding pattern of sorts over the past six weeks. The main reason for this was the lengthy transition period from the Bush era to the Obama presidency. If India did not wish to prejudice the tenor of its relations with the new dispensation by presenting it with an escalatory fait accompli, Pakistan had no incentive to provide an outgoing administration with the reward of cooperation with the Indian probe. The result was the trading of verbal barbs and threats. Behind the scenes, however, Indian officials told their Pakistani counterparts that New Delhi was prepared to give Islamabad time to conduct its own investigations. And in turn, Pakistan assured India that its Federal Investigation Agency would pursue the leads provided to it with utmost seriousness and urgency. Privately, Pakistani officials also said the initial internal dissonance in their establishment was over and that "all stakeholders" were on the same page on the question of getting to the bottom of the Mumbai terror conspiracy.

Indian officials told The Hindu they never asked for an immediate deadline and that it was Pakistan which said it would try and complete its initial probe in 10 days flat. Unfortunately, or fortunately, for both countries, that self-imposed deadline is coming to an end at the same time that the Obama team is moving quickly to establish Washington's new South Asia policy. Stonewalling carries both costs and benefits for Islamabad. A deteriorating bilateral environment will likely goad President Barack H. Obama to demand more from Pakistan.

But it will also strengthen the hands of those in his administration who look at Afghanistan, Pakistan and India as being inter-connected parts of the same strategic puzzle.

Speculative reports from Pakistan about investigators there determining that the Mumbai attacks were planned elsewhere are not a good augury. Pakistan's FIA may well have its reasons for concluding that about the 'master plan' but what the situation calls for at the moment is the uncovering of the evidentiary trail unearthed so far by the Indian side. Though India provided Pakistan an abbreviated dossier of evidence - more was shared with other countries - there is much in it that is actionable, say senior officials. For example, India would like Pakistan to confirm the identity of the nine deceased terrorists.

Some of the information given in this regard is vague eg. 'NaserAbu Amar (23 yrs) r/o Faisalabad' but some of the men have been identified in the dossier as residents of specific villages. It should not be difficult for Pakistani investigators to find the relatives of 'Shoaib Abu Saheb (21 yrs) r/o Shakkargarh Naroval, Sialkot' or 'Fahadullah (23 yrs) r/o Ujrashah Mukim, Rasur Road, Okara,' especially when India has also provided them photographs of the dead men's faces.

Other actionable leads in the Indian dossier include the status of the Al-Husseini, the large boat that the captured terrorist, Ajmal 'Kasab,' claimed was used to transport his group of gunmen on the high seas till the hijacking of the Kuber. The Pakistani FIA ought to be able to establish the whereabouts, ownership and trip records of the boat.

Islamabad could also provide India with information on Javaid Iqbal, the owner of Pakistani passport no. KC092481, who wired the money which was used to open the VoIP account from which the handlers remained in touch with the 10 terrorists during the Mumbai attacks.

Another trail to be explored is that provided by the registration number of the outboard Yamaha motor recovered from the inflatable dinghy the terrorists used to reach their final destination in Mumbai.

Indian investigators had been able to identify the Lahore company which imported it but who they sold it to might provide clues to the identity of the plotters.

All of this is besides the information Pakistani investigators can glean from Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives like Zarar Shah, who are in their custody. On December 31, the Wall Street Journal quoted an unidentified "senior Pakistani security official" as confirming that Shah had confessed to the LeT's involvement in the attack "as India and the U.S. have alleged." "Pakistani security officials say a top Lashkar commander, Zarar Shah, has admitted a role in the Mumbai attack during interrogation, according to the security official, who declined to be identified discussing the investigation," the newspaper reported. "He is singing," the security official said of Mr. Shah.

The admission, the official said, is backed up by U.S. intercepts of a phone call between Mr. Shah and one of the attackers at the Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, the site of a 60-hour confrontation with Indian security forces. A second person familiar with the investigation said Mr. Shah told Pakistani interrogators that he was one of the key planners of the operation, and that he spoke with the attackers during the rampage "to give them advice and keep them focused."

Against this backdrop, say Indian officials, they expect Islamabad to come back with some constructive information about the identity and links of the Mumbai plotters. Brushing aside the question of why India chose not to share all the evidence it had, a senior official told The Hindu that enough had been given to allow investigations there to begin. "If they are serious about a probe, they have enough material to go on. And if they are not, a thicker dossier would hardly have made any difference."

MEA Library Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India