By Ravi M. Khanna
The US move to announce a $10 million bounty on Pakistan-based planner of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack is a huge step – huge for the US and its already tense relations with Pakistan and huge for India in several ways.
The move brings to fruition India’s diligent and meticulous efforts to convince the US over the last three years that Lashkar-e-Toiba is not only one of Pakistan’s ISI assets often used against New Delhi, but that its tentacles are a lurking danger for the US and the whole world.
It also vindicates several US senators including John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who with other US Congressional leaders have been urging the State Department to pressurize Pakistan to genuinely dismantle the group.
Pakistan banned the group under the US pressure in 2002 but let its leader Hafiz Saeed roam around freely to spread poison against India and hide behind charitable institutions such as Jamat-ud-Dawa.
The US move also proves what Washington always knew that it will not be able to keep on differentiating between Pakistan-based militants who were attacking the US and other foreign forces in Afghanistan on the one hand and the ones staging terror attacks against India in Afghanistan and in India on the other.
State Department officials were aware that one day it will become really hard to justify the difference, especially at a time when the US is leading the world in trying to eliminate terrorism.
In the over three years following 26/11, there were a lot of discussions among think tanks, such as the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation in Washington, on how the US should also be concerned about the Lashkar militants just as it is about Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
They often spoke about how Washington has been pressing Islamabad to crack down on Al Qaeda and Taliban elements without applying the same pressure in the case of the Lashkar. Some experts felt it was because the State Department did not perceive Lashkar as a danger to the Americans. But some experts warned that Lashkar was not only anti-India but also anti-US.
Several US officials told this writer before the Mumbai attack that they knew why Pakistan was not able to crack down on the Lashkar militants. The Lashkar, they said, was an asset Pakistan had used for terror attacks against India. So, they said, even the US can’t pressure Pakistan to contain the Lashkar. The same reason applies to the Haqqani militant group that the ISI allegedly uses against Afghanistan.
And then came the Mumbai attack that not only left several Americans dead but raised the possibilities of such attacks on five star hotels in Europe and the US. At the time, one expected that the perception about Lashkar will change in Washington. It did but only to an extent.
US Congressional leaders were more vocal about the need to pressure Pakistan to dislodge Lashakar-e-Toiba and were ready to even stop the US aid to Pakistan in case it did not seriously contain it. But the State Department pressed Pakistani leaders about it only in private while praising the Pakistani efforts in fighting terror in the public. Slowly, it also began saying in public that Pakistan was not doing enough to end terrorism on its soil, but without naming Lashkar.
It seems the real game changer was the arrest of David Coleman Headley, nabbed in Chicago in 2010 with an accomplice and who admitted that he belongs to Lashkar. The revelation brought Lashkar squarely inside the US.
As Headley was tried in Chicago, the buzz about Lashkar being a danger not only for India but also for the US became louder in Washington. In the US Congress, this writer attended several hearings held by Senate and House committees on how dangerous Lashkar could become for the Americans.
India also increased its pressure on the US to share Headley’s testimony with New Delhi, and allow Indian investigators to ask Headley some questions.
The two things to watch in the coming days are: how it affects US relations with Pakistan, and how it deepens the cooperation on fighting terrorism between India and the US.