By Mayank Chhaya
In the screwy world that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) chief Hafiz Saeed inhabits, the $10 million US bounty on his head will be seen a badge of honor and likely defeat the broader purpose of discrediting terrorist outfit leaders.
Although in the immediate short-term sense the reward announced during her New Delhi visit by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman heartens India, for Saeed and his supporters it can only be like a shot in the arm. Saeed dwells in a world where the stronger the denunciation from the United States and India, the more enhanced his standing becomes.
On the face of it the reward seems like a much-delayed recognition by Washington of New Delhi's stand against Saeed and the LeT for their involvement in the Mumbai terrorist strikes of November 26, 2008. It also buttresses India's legal efforts to compel Pakistan to arrest Saeed in that connection. However, in the specific Pakistani context, where Saeed enjoys considerable popular political support as well as strong confidence of its security establishment, it is likely to prove ineffectual at best and counterproductive at worst.
Saeed may be on Pakistan's "watch-list" but he has largely remained unmolested except for his brief arrest after the Mumbai attacks. He has pursued his religious and political objectives without much of a challenge. Even Imran Khan, the chief of the Tehreek-e-Insaf who aspires to lead his country after the next elections, has said he is in favor of engaging Saeed and others like him.
A significant body of Pakistan's popular opinion has been well past caring about or being troubled by what the international community in general and the United States in particular think about their country. From all indications Pakistan's persecution complex has been so heightened that such rewards achieve precisely the opposite of the desired result. If the objective is to turn the public opinion against Saeed, no one should be surprised if it only serves to consolidate it.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram's assertion that the reward will put pressure on Pakistan to end her farcical response to India's demands over the Mumbai attacks could well turn out to be gratuitously optimistic. The only way India will get her way with Saeed is if the Pakistani security and intelligence establishment, which is known to support him, concludes that he has outlived his utility and might be well worth sacrificing. It is doubtful that a $10 million reward will speed up that conclusion.
In this context, India's perspective that Pakistan has been living in denial over the role played by Saeed and the LeT in the Mumbai attacks is also flawed. Islamabad seems to harbor figures such as Saeed on a strictly utilitarian basis. There does not seem to be any emotional, moral or ethical dimension to that calculation. More often than not figures such Saeed are pawns in a larger, long-term game that are not important in and of themselves but the purpose they serve at a given moment.
At best the reward offers India a symbolic vindication which she would make the most of during the one-day visit of Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari on April 8. Although the ostensible purpose of his visit is to offer prayers at Ajmer Sharif, Zardari's lunch with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is now likely to be focused on Saeed. However, Prime Minister Singh knows better than wasting the visit, first in seven years by a Pakistani president, on just one issue to the exclusion of much larger bilateral relations. The flip side to this is the apparently diminishing influence of Zardari personally within his country's power structure and the question whether he can make any specific commitment over Saeed which he can realistically expect to honor once he is back home.
It is fair to view the reward as a diplomatic triumph for India's external affairs ministry at a time when the US State Department is not entirely pleased with New Delhi's open defiance of the US-led sanctions against Iran over the latter's nuclear program. There is some scepticism over how the Obama administration views India's oil deals with Iran in the face of its aggressive advocacy of economically choking Tehran. The reward appears to indicate otherwise.
(Mayank Chhaya is a US-based writer and commentator. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)