Genteel pastime reaches end of innocence

by Ramesh Thakur

WATERLOO, Ontario — In recent years, Australia, England and New Zealand have canceled cricketing tours of Pakistan because of concern for the physical safety of their teams. At best, Australia agreed to play Pakistan in the neutral venue of Abu Dhabi next month.

The four South Asian cricketing boards of Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka had shown solidarity in treating any danger to players’ lives as a collateral risk of life.

When terrorists struck Mumbai on Nov. 26, the English cricket team was touring India. Indeed the team was booked at the Taj Hotel, one of the high-profile casualties of that attack, just a few days later for a match against Mumbai.

Two things happened after the terror attacks: The English team went back home but returned a short while later to complete a curtailed tour in a show of determination to deny terrorists the satisfaction of “victory.” And the Indian government canceled the planned Indian cricket tour of Pakistan for January 2009, citing security concerns.

Pakistan then successfully appealed to Sri Lanka to replace India on an emergency basis. It was rewarded Tuesday with an attack in Lahore by about a dozen well-trained, disciplined, heavily armed young men executing an audacious, carefully preplanned mission with commando-style precision. Six policemen and one civilian were killed. The bus driver’s heroic determination to reach Gadhafi stadium almost certainly prevented the entire Sri Lankan team from being massacred.

This may be the first time since the 1972 Munich Olympics that athletes have been directly targeted by terrorists. Pakistan noted that teams had been caught up in the middle of violent incidents but had not been the main targets.

Most Pakistanis believed that because of cricket’s passionate popularity on the subcontinent, terrorists would not risk a widespread public backlash by attacking the teams or a match. They have now attacked the team that came to show solidarity after “arch-enemy” India withdrew. This is the end of innocence for a genteel game in which one can easily while away the afternoon watching grass grow.

The attack should disabuse innocent foreigners — including British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and U.S. President Barack Obama — of the notion that the terrorists infesting Pakistan have Kashmir as their agenda. Mumbai last year already proved that the terrorist leaders mean what they say when they lump together Hindus, Christians and Jews as common enemies of Islam. Indeed, a Los Angeles Times story suggested that a primary aim of the Mumbai attacks may have been to disrupt the burgeoning relationship between India and Israel.

The attack should help to convince the Pakistani security establishment that the jihadist monster they spawned is now their own biggest security threat from within. An irritant for India is proving to be fatal for Pakistan.

To the anguish of many Pakistanis, the government recently surrendered control of the lovely Swat Valley, a mere 160 kilometers from Islamabad, to Islamists whose agenda had been roundly repudiated by voters in recent elections. As the extremists regroup in the notorious Afghanistan-Pakistan border badlands and strike with growing daring and impunity on both sides, a gathering war-weariness in NATO is encouraging negotiations with the “good” Taliban as a means of containing “bad” al-Qaida. This could prove a dangerous delusion.

The attack should drive home to all South Asian leaders the folly of believing that their neighbor’s terrorist is their own freedom fighter. Indira Gandhi played that game domestically with the Sikhs, and her son Rajiv played it with Sri Lanka. Both paid with their lives, felled by bullets and bombs from the very monsters they had created.

The region’s governments must cooperate in their intelligence, law enforcement and political remedies to the common scourge of terrorism. Its infrastructure of “educational” madrassa, recruitment centers, financial networks and training camps must be uprooted across South Asia. India can be the solution to Pakistan’s nightmare of militancy, but not until such time as New Delhi is convinced of Islamabad’s good faith, which to date has been conspicuously lacking. The Pakistan government has been in denial, obfuscation and diversion mode with regard to the Pakistani origins of the Mumbai attacks and the possible complicity of ISI agents.

Conversely, it is disheartening to read that India’s home and foreign ministers said “I told you so” instead of offering unconditional sympathy and support to a grieving nation in shock. Not to be outdone, some Pakistanis reflexively pointed the finger of suspicion at India. A little magnanimity can go a long way in times of national peril. The Indian team, playing a match in New Zealand at the time, put on black armbands in sympathy when news of Lahore came through.

Building on antiterrorism cooperation, South Asians should look to foster regional human rights commissions (avoiding Canadian-type Frankensteins that mock the rights they should protect), press councils, a common peacekeeping doctrine for U.N. deployment, joint tourism promotion, protection of nationals working in the Middle East, etc. With greater cross-border flow of goods, services and people, even the Kashmir dividing line and the thorny sovereignty issue could become irrelevant.

Special envoys of former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had reportedly worked out such a deal after several rounds of secret discussions, before courage deserted one or both. The deal could be resurrected after May.

Ramesh Thakur is the founding director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Ontario.