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EFSAS Commentary

Three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif admits Pakistan perpetrated 2008 Mumbai attacks


Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in an interview with Cyril Almeida on ‘Dawn News’ asserted last week that Pakistan must act against anti-India terrorist groups operating out of Pakistan. Referring to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks carried out by ten Pakistani terrorists of Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT) in which 164 people were killed and over 300 injured, he said: "Militant organizations are active (in Pakistan). Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it. We have isolated ourselves. Despite giving sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted. Afghanistan's narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it". 

Sharif’s statement has stirred the hornet’s nest in Pakistan with the military establishment, his political opponents, even elements within his own party Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), and most sections of the Pakistani media baying for his blood. 

The military establishment, widely perceived internationally as the entity responsible for churning out Pakistan’s endless string of terrorist organizations and their leaders (the ‘non-state actors’, mentioned by Sharif) was quick to react. That the establishment was palpably shaken was apparent from the fact that it summoned Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to a meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) on 14 May to discuss “recent misleading media statement regarding Bombay (Mumbai) incident”. NSC meetings in Pakistan uphold the Army narrative, as its composition indicates - Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, National Security Advisor Nasser Janjua and ISI Director General Naveed Mukhtar were the others who attended. A statement issued after the meeting termed Sharif’s comments as “incorrect and misleading”, adding that it was “very unfortunate that the opinion arising out of either misconceptions or grievances was being presented in disregard of concrete facts and realities”. The NSC “unanimously rejected the allegations and condemned the fallacious assertions” of Sharif. Reports suggest that PM Abbasi was ordered by the military leadership to address the Parliament and distance himself from Sharif’s statement. 

Political parties irrespective of their affiliation were left reeling in the aftermath of Sharif’s statement. Their overriding fear of an extreme response by the establishment was starkly visible in their reactions. History has time and again demonstrated to them that it did not need much of an excuse for the establishment to ruthlessly overthrow democratically elected governments. The alienation (and in some cases even execution and exile of leaders) that resulted had been difficult for these parties to endure. Years, even decades, of strife and struggle was what they had been confronted with on each such previous occasion. Their reaction was fuelled primarily by this consideration. Pakistan People's Party (PPP) leader Sherry Rehman on 13 May strongly derided Sharif’s statement, averring that it had “hampered Pakistan's honour”. She was also quoted as saying: "If you suggest the [government] ‘allowed’ any action against another country then [you are] suggesting official complicity". Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan alleged that “Nawaz is part of an international plan to weaken our Army”. Sharif’s statement was also vehemently denounced during discussions on Pakistan’s political situation in the country’s Senate on 14 May. The overwhelming view was that Sharif’s remarks were irresponsible and detrimental to the country’s interests. Calls for him to retract his statement and apologize to the nation were made, and some Senators went so far as to demand that he be tried for treason. Meanwhile, a petition was actually filed in the Lahore High Court by Khurram Nawaz Gandapur of Pakistan Awami Tehreek party to register a treason case against Sharif on the grounds that his statement adversely impacted national security as well as institutions of the state. 

These extreme reactions against Sharif are surprising on a number of counts. Firstly, there is nothing novel about what he said. Secondly, there is no real doubt in any quarter about who had carried out the dastardly Mumbai attacks. Thirdly, it is a widely reported fact that most countries, including Pakistan’s ‘all weather friend’ China, have on numerous occasions goaded Pakistan to eschew its policy of promoting terrorism against India and Afghanistan. Fourthly, it is an indisputable fact that as many as ten long years after the attacks, Pakistan has made no progress with the trials into the attacks that it had assured it would pursue with all earnestness. 

Nawaz Sharif is not the first senior representative of the Pakistan Government to acknowledge that Pakistani terrorists with the active backing of 'elements' of the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), had carried out the Mumbai attacks. Former ISI Chief Lieutenant General Shuja Pasha had during a visit to the US in December 2008 unambiguously told the then CIA Chief General Michael Hayden that “retired military officers and retired intelligence officers” had been involved in planning the Mumbai attacks. Pasha, during the same visit, confided to Pakistan’s then Ambassador to the US, Husain Haqqani, that plotters of the Mumbai attacks were “our people”. In 2011, Major General Athar Abbas, Chief of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistan Armed Forces, had disclosed to a visiting Indian media delegation that retired ISI officials could have facilitated LeT terrorist Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi in planning and carrying out the Mumbai attacks. PPP leader Rehman Malik, Pakistan’s Interior Minister at the time of the attacks, was quoted in the Pakistani media as saying that “some part of the conspiracy has taken place in Pakistan and according to available information, most of them (the suspects) are in our custody”. In 2009, then Federal Minister for Information Sherry Rehman told the BBC that Ajmal Kasab, the sole terrorist captured during the attacks, was a Pakistani citizen. 

Pervez Musharraf, former Chief of the Pakistan Army who deposed Nawaz Sharif in a 1999 coup d'état and went on to become the country’s 10th President, has in various interviews not only acknowledged that Pakistani security agencies trained militant groups to launch attacks against Indian forces in Jammu & Kashmir, but also that the ISI had cultivated the Taliban and that 'rogue elements' of the ISI may have helped Osama bin Laden. Despite such statements, Musharraf’s military background was enough to ensure that he was never termed a traitor. 

Sharif’s admission comes at a time when Pakistan is under pressure from the US to act decisively against terrorist entities such as the Haqqani network and the LeT. Further, the 35-member Financial Action Task Force (FATF), on the basis of a joint proposal moved by the US and the UK, had in February this year decided to place Pakistan on its ‘grey list’ on account of ‘strategic deficiencies’ in its ability to prevent terror financing and money laundering. A review of the listing is slated for later this year and the possibility of Pakistan being placed on FATF’s ‘blacklist’ along with Iran and North Korea also exists. 

The lack of progress in the Mumbai attacks trials has seriously impacted Pakistan’s image internationally, and has reinforced the view that the country has the propensity to backtrack from its international commitments. Pakistan’s political leadership has on several occasions pledged speedy conclusion of the trials to leaders of countries, including the US, which lost its citizens in the attacks. The reason for Pakistan’s apathy towards the long-stalled trials in a court in Rawalpindi (where the Pakistan Army is headquartered) is obvious. The direct involvement of ISI officers and the LeT in the attacks has caused the military establishment to stonewall all attempts to move the case forward. The symbiotic relationship between the ISI and the LeT is evident from the fact that Shuja Pasha, as ISI chief, visited Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the Mumbai attacks, while the latter was in jail. Lakhvi was subsequently released on bail in April 2015. LeT chief Hafiz Saeed, on whom the US announced a bounty of $10 million in 2012, now masquerades as the leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawah, which he claims is a charitable organization. Saeed is placed under house arrest by the Pakistani military establishment every time the heat on him is raised by the US and India. He is invariably released a few months down the line when the pressure has waned, and is empowered to publicly issue vitriolic calls for Jihad and violence against Pakistan’s neighbours. The consequence of the impunity that LeT and other similar terrorist organizations like the Jaish-e-Mohammad enjoy in Pakistan is that the country is almost perpetually on the brink of being disgracefully declared a ‘State sponsor of terrorism’ by the US and other democracies.