Pakistan’s reluctant admission on Mumbai terror - is it a Holbrooke gambit?

US Presidential envoy, Richard C Holbrooke's visit to India comes immediately after the Pakistan's interior minister Rehman Malik owned up that the terrorists were indeed nationals from his country. The big question is will Pakistan's admission on terror help in building the credibility of Holbrooke with the suspicious Indian establishment?

By Sanjay Kapoor, New Delhi, Hardnews

All these years Indians have been quite comfortable with Pakistan's strenuous denials and its unceasing flip-flops over its alleged involvement of their agencies in terror attacks. So, after repeatedly refusing to acknowledge their hand in the horrific atrocities in Mumbai in the wake of terror attack last November, when Pakistan's Interior minister, Rehman Malik, unexpectedly, owned up India's two allegations that the conspiracy was hatched in Pakistan and the terrorists were their own nationals, then it raised suspicion in New Delhi's paranoid security establishment. The obvious questions that are being asked are: why did Pakistan do a volte-face and where will this new trajectory of their probe lead to? There are troubling surmises that are being drawn from Pakistan's zeal to expose all and to book and punish the guilty.

Hardnews learns that the first is that Islamabad's democratic leadership was read the riot act by US Presidential envoy Richard C Holbrooke- who recently visited Islamabad- and told to cooperate with India if it wanted steady flow of aid from Washington. President Barack Obama's phone call, too, to President, Asif Ali Zardari, forced him to see the peril of his government's calibrated recalcitrance. If that is the only case then it is fine. What worries the Indians is- what if US has an agenda to soften Indian belligerence by forcing Pakistan to own up –partially- allegations of the Mumbai terrorists being Pakistanis and later force New Delhi to accept some hare brained proposal on Kashmir or cajoling the Indian government to send its troops in Afghanistan. In other words- what if there is a trade-off between Holbrooke and Zardari.

Holbrooke’s trip to Delhi would show up how he treats his mandate. Pakistani Premier, in his discussion with the glory seeking US envoy, had expectedly linked the problems of violence with the unresolved Kashmir issue. Predictably, Holbrooke was told how the Pakistanis were not able to fight the Taliban as the border with India was still unstable and settled. The impress of Pakistani author, Ahmed Rashid, who is part of the General Patreaus’s group of advisors on Afghanistan, was quite in evidence in Pakistani leadership’s pitch to the US special envoy. Even Holbrooke as the Head of Asia Society had underlined the importance of Kashmir in resolving tension in South Asia.

There are, however, aspects of the Pakistani probe that can queer the pitch of the Indians. In their list of 30 questions, Pakistanis wanted to know "How did the terrorists' boat enter Indian waters, their local support in Gujarat and Mumbai, and why did the National Security Guards operation to flush them out take 60 hours." These questions look seemingly very innocuous- typically they are those that would be raised by any investigator- but they scythe through the heart of what was really India's worst hour. Queries from across the border really heap further humiliation on the Indian intelligence and counter terror efforts. In the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai attack, these were the same questions that were rankling the candle bearing chattering class in Mumbai and Delhi. They, too, wanted to know why was the intelligence was not acted upon. Also, why did it take NSG so much time to first land in Mumbai and then smoke out the terrorists? And what about the local help? Save for the steady denial by the central government, there is near unanimity that the Mumbai operation could not have been executed without local support. Mumbai’s Police Commissioner, Ghafoor, owned up that the Pakistani government had been informed about the local Mumbaikars who helped the ten terrorists.

Under pressure from the central government, Ghafoor recanted. Indian government is aware of local help, but does not want to own it up lest it dilutes the basic thrust of their allegations that the conspiracy was hatched in Pakistan and executed by Pakistanis. Pakistani authorities also want to know how the terrorists acquired the mobile banking ready SIM cards in Kolkata. These are inconvenient questions. It was alleged that the details of the SIM cards were known to India’s intelligence bureau. The moot question is- why didn’t the Indian agencies act on this information. Clearly, it would be difficult for Indian government to provide answers to many of the Pakistani questions without showing up their own inadequacies. Pakistan Prime Minister Gilani’s sarcastic allegations that India was blaming them for their intelligence failure and general lethargy would begin to stick. Pakistan’s admission about the involvement of their nationals does not take the probe any closer to the thesis available in the Indian government’s dossier on Mumbai attack. Indian government claims that the attack would not have been possible without the help of the Pakistani State or some of its agencies.

Rehman Malik’s press conference owns up some of the names thrown up by the Indian investigation, but he casually links them with a larger global conspiracy- quite similar to the kinds executed by al-qaida. In other words, Pakistan is trying to take a part of the Indian probe and patch it with their understanding of the perpetrators- the non-state al-qaida. Such a finding, when it happens, would square with Pakistan leadership vociferous insistence that “non state actors” were behind the Mumbai attack. Indian government has been claiming that their intelligence agencies- Inter Services Intelligence(ISI)- were behind this operation.

Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari’s statement that the Taliban could overrun his country is a message to, both, USA and India that any attempt to de-legitimize his regime would have catastrophic implications for the region and the world. It will be interesting to see what Holbrooke tells the Indians and what they tell him. Holbrooke would also learn that South Asia is not like Balkans and India no pushover failed state. After all, Indian lobbyists worked hard to change his mandate to limit it to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Earlier, he was expected to be an envoy to all the three countries of South Asian region. Holbrooke’s visit would also be cramped by the fact that the Indian government cannot really commit to anything as it is in transition. A new government would come later in June and till then crisis in the region and Holbrooke’s frenetic exertions would have to be put in pause mode.