The most troubling aspect of the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team on its way to play Pakistan in Lahore Tuesday March 3 was the speed with which Pakistani President Ali Zardari pushed the button to release a massive disinformation machine to cover up the real story.
What happened was that some 14 highly trained, heavily armed terrorists tried to murder the visiting cricket team and managed to escape without a single assailant being apprehended or injured by the Punjab elite police commandos lining the route to the stadium.
The following day, Dawn, the leading Pakistani English newspaper, put its finger on the Achilles heel of Zardari's policy by commenting:” If the state resorts to negotiating with militants from a position of weakness, what we will get is disaster across the board.”
The paper was referring to Islamabad's policy of surrendering to insurgencies (in the Swat Valley and Bajour) along Pakistan's north-west frontier with Afghanistan, bartering Islamic law for a ceasefire.
Zardari defended this policy in the Wall Street Journal by denying that the “traditional local clerics” he had negotiated with in the Swat Valley were Taliban. Pakistan would not negotiate with “extremist Taliban and terrorists,” the Pakistani president insisted, warning that the stakes of Pakistan's battle against extremism were high: “If we lose, so too will the world.”
A fast cover-up betrayed by contradictions
The disinformation campaign he orchestrated across the subcontinent was careful to separate the Lahore attack from his negotiations – as though two unconnected entities were at work.
The men who attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team were not linked to Taliban or al Qaeda, officials in Islamabad insisted. They were local nationalist elements who were once linked to Taliban but no more. One source stressed that these “Kashmiri” militants are mostly non-Pashtun, unlike most of the Taliban, and the majority are “ethnic Pakistani Punjabis.”
The details of the attack were also carefully airbrushed.
“The gunmen's plan to take hostages was foiled by the fierce resistance put up by the elite commandos of the Punjab police in the escorting envoy,” said Zardari's spokesmen. “They stood their ground and were quick to return fire.”
However, a witness who saw the entire episode offered a different version.
Former England batsman Chris Broad was in a minibus of officials following the Sri Lankan team's coach. He brought out two pertinent points:
1. He had learned that the route followed by the Sri Lankan team to the Lahore stadium had been changed at the last minute to foil would-be assailants. Nonetheless the terrorists knew they were coming and were waiting.
2. Although rockets, grenades, bullets, RPGs and a shoulder-borne missile were flying for 25 minutes, the Pakistani security details along the route kept their distance, even after 6 members of the Pakistani escort died in the melee. None moved to stop the fire, catch the terrorists or interfere with their escape.
Fallout on US policy positions in South Asia
Broad said his dominant emotion after the attack was “anger at the lack of security” for the Sri Lankan team, the only international cricketers willing to visit Pakistan, “although presidential-style security” had been promised.
“They left the scene and left us to be sitting ducks,” said the British umpire on his return home.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's counter terror sources have found hardly any intelligence experts in Washington or Islamabad who believe that the Lahore gunmen were unrelated to Taliban or al Qaeda, or that the attack had no connection with the war raging not only in North Waziristan but in the Swat Valley just two weeks after a guaranteed Taliban ceasefire.
They view the attack on the cricketers as one of a series planned for foreign targets in Pakistan's main cities for the purpose of destabilizing the Islamabad government.
The Pakistani president is not the only one shutting his eyes and ears to the tempest raging against his government; Washington too is impervious to its impact on US policies in South Asia and Afghanistan, as mentioned in the first item in this issue.
Western anti-terror agencies operating in South Asia rap the Pakistani government's painful slowness in acting against Islamist terror and are highly critical of Washington too.
Wednesday, March 4, the FBI director Robert Mueller arrived in Islamabad on a pre-arranged visit. He came to help Pakistan with its investigation into the Lashkar e-Taibe terrorist group which staged the devastating assault on the Indian city of Mumbai last November.
He found the Pakistani authorities in disarray over the terrorist outrage on their soil and hardly inclined to go back to the Mumbai episode and its fallout on Pakistani-India relations.
Cricket is revered in the subcontinent with near religious fervor. The first thing Mueller heard from Pakistan officials was an accusation that India had staged the attack in Lahore to isolate Pakistan and exclude it as joint host for the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
Young, clean-cut men in neat Western clothes in Mumbai and Lahore
According to senior officials in Islamabad, Pakistan's senior interior ministry official, Rehman Malik “shared with the FBI visitors” the initial intelligence reports and “pointed the finger at India.”
Malik may not have noticed that he was contradicting the Pakistani president's account which pointed the finger at Kashmiris and Punjabis.
Both ignored the strong similarities between the Lahore and Mumbai assailants. Both gangs were made up of young, clean-cut men, wearing neat Western clothes and carrying their weapons in backpacks.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's experts on terror note that the Pakistani government prefers to carry on feuding with New Delhi, using Taliban and al Qaeda as weapons for discrediting India, instead of grappling with those enemies.
In 25 bloody minutes, both managed to expose the weaknesses and contradictions innate in Washington's latest strategy for South Asia, notably the initiative led by US presidential envoy Richard Holbrooke to reconcile India and Pakistan for a joint front against extremist Muslim terror in the hope of bringing New Delhi aboard the effort to solve the conflict in Afghanistan.
To foster this drive, Washington persuaded New Delhi to refrain from reprisals against the Pakistan-based perpetrators of the Mumbai attack. Islamabad pledged to bring them to justice.
In the absence of action by either government, the terrorist organizations used these four months to enhance their capabilities and polish their tactics, as they demonstrated in Lahore on March 3.