‘The LeT does social work in Pakistan’

Terror is our common problem, says former Pakistani foreign minister Sartaj Aziz, in the wake of the horrific 26/11 attack

December 13, 2008 in Politics
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What is the mood in Pakistan? Can you outline the key strands and counter strands?

There is a uniform sense of disappointment at the derailment of the peace process by this sudden, brutal, devastating attack. There is also widespread apprehension of hostilities resuming between the two countries. Nobody in mainstream Pakistan wants this. Along with this there is a disappointment about the automatic accusation against Pakistan, before any concrete evidence can be found. We have seen this before with the massacre of Sikhs in Jammu before President Clinton’s visit to India, the Samjhauta Express blast, and the Indian Parliament attack on 13 December. Each time Pakistan was accused and later investigations showed this to be false. After the Parliament attack almost a million troops were positioned on the border on the most flimsy evidence. On the other hand, when the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad was attacked, the Pakistan government was quick to say there were no links with India. Overall, there has been a lot of concern. All the political parties here met on Tuesday, December 2, 2008, and the tension has only diminished after India announced it does not believe Pakistan government agencies were involved. They say we are unable to control our extreme radicals, but then who can control such forces?

If this attack has emanated from extremists on Pakistan soil, what is it you think can or should be done now?
Our government has said we are ready to co-operate. We have offered to create a mechanism of joint investigation and sharing of information. This should be revived. It would go a long way in restoring the damage to the atmosphere of trust that had been built up, starting with Nawaz Sharif and Musharraff from the Pakistan side, and taken much further by President Zardari who has been talking of no visas and opening trade between the two countries. Indians must understand Pakistan is a worse victim of terrorism than even India. We have a common problem. Global faultlines – triggered by the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the middle-eastern crisis — have traveled to our region. It is in our common interest to stop all this. The whole region needs peace and prosperity. To achieve this, I hope India will be able to conduct honest and transparent investigations, and not play things up for electoral gains.

If you say it is not ISI-backed, who do you think has done this?
Whoever did it wanted to spoil the peace process. The only people who would benefit from this that I can think of are the jehadi Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The Pakistani government action against them has intensified, they are under a lot of pressure and they have been retaliating by blowing up girls’ schools, video shops and police stations. If they can create strong tension between India and Pakistan, there would be a cessation of military action against them, troops would have to be diverted to the eastern border and pressure on them would let up. We strongly hope India will not push us into that position.

India has been asking for a list of 20 criminals. This seems pretty reasonable. What stops Pakistan from giving them up? 

We have repeatedly asked India for some evidence against them; repeatedly offered a mechanism for joint investigations. Given the relationship between India and Pakistan, sending a list is not good enough. If we extradited these people without strong evidence, it would not go down well with people in Pakistan. After the Bombay blasts, there was a strong push from India but the evidence provided finally was very poor.

Are you saying there is popular support for the LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammad and men like Dawood Ibrahim in Pakistan?

Not wide popular support, but they do have support among some religious parties. They have no record of illegal activity within Pakistan, they merely propagate their own religion and, in fact, after the LeT and Jaish was banned under US pressure, the LeT has reincarnated itself as the Jammat-ul-Dawa. They do a lot of social work, they run schools and hospitals. We cannot touch them without strong evidence. You have the RSS and its extended wings in your country. Can you eliminate the RSS? We all have extreme fringes in our societies, but you can’t just brand them without evidence. You cannot compare the LeT leadership with the Taliban of the tribal areas.

Why did Pakistan agree to ban them under US pressure then?

Their volunteers were involved in the Kashmir jehad, we didn’t think of this activity in Kashmir as terrorism but as support for the freedom fighters there. But after 9/11, there were a lot of demands from the West to ban them so we had to concede. Because of the nature of the history between India and Pakistan, we cannot make similar concessions to Indian demands without hard evidence.

The ISI chief was set to come to India. Why did he back off?

He backed off because of the way the Indian television media began to play the story. They said the ISI chief had been “summoned” to India. Naturally this made things very awkward for us.

What do you make of India’s growing proximity to America, and Pakistan’s own relationship with the US? Has it been beneficial?
No one can deny that the US’ actions has created hostilities around the world and their action in Afghanistan and elsewhere will need a fresh look and evaluation. At the same time I think America does want improved relations between India and Pakistan so that Pakistan can focus squarely on the trouble on its Afghan border. To that extent, there is a convergence of interest. But I don’t think military action alone can solve the problem. We need to get a diplomatic and political dialogue going with the locals. There are very few outsiders there, it is local support that has grown and we have to wean that away.

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