What a Chicago trial reveals about Pakistan's involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attack may force a huge shift in US foreign policy
Guardian, Monday 16 May 2011 16.06 BST
Mumbai terror attack 2008, Chicago trial of David Headley Coleman 2011
Indian Army soldiers taking position outside the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, 28 November 2008. The Chicago trial, starting 16 May 2011, of David Headley Coleman will open a window on who plotted the Mumbai attack, which is likely to inflame tension between India and Pakistan. Photograph: AFP/Sajjad Hussain
The killing of Osama bin Laden, deep inside Pakistani territory, has sparked another vigorous debate about Pakistan's partnership with the west in the "war on terror". This time, the debate has finally gotten beyond just hints that some power-holders in Pakistan are supporting terrorism. His death has clearly swayed the American public's opinion, which by a large margin believes that Pakistan knew exactly where Osama bin Laden was, but refused to give him up.
That there are elements inside Pakistan's military that are sympathetic to al-Qaida and other terrorist organisations has been accepted for a long time. But clear evidence so far has either not been divulged to the public, or has been lacking in consistency for concrete action to be taken against those actors in Pakistan. But as important a piece of the larger puzzle as Bin Laden's death may be, the case of David Coleman Headley is likely going to remove many doubts about Pakistan's double game and may end up bringing far more dire consequences for Pakistan.
Headley, a Pakistani-American, is soon to appear in a federal court in Chicago as a prosecution witness against Rana Tawahhur Hussein, a Chicago area businessman of Pakistani descent. Hussein is accused of providing financial and logistical support to terrorists who carried out the deadly Mumbai terror attack in 2008.
A first generation immigrant, Headley was born Daood Sayed Gilani. The son of a Pakistani father and an American mother, Headley changed his name to a more non-Pakistani-sounding one to avoid suspicion and to make it easier for him to travel to south Asia, where he was recruited by the Pakistani secret service, the ISI. With help from ISI, Headley was instrumental in the Mumbai terror attack that left over 100 people dead and hundreds more injured or at least that is what he claims.
His story is not only unique, in that he managed to avoid detection for years while carrying out undercover work for terrorists – and as an informant for the US Drug Enforcement Administration – but also in that when arrested in 2009, he was willing to tell all about the ISI's connection to the attack. He's already divulged that several Pakistani ISI officials, including a shadowy figure named Major Iqbal, were involved with him in organising the attack. Major Iqbal and others trained him for months and funded his intelligence-gathering missions in India, during which he even stayed at the Taj Mahal Palace & Towers Hotel, which was later to be the scene of much violence during the attack.
Headley's case is far more damning for the Pakistani authorities than the case of Faisal Shahzad, who, like Headley, made his way into Pakistan to receive terrorist training, but ended up in the arms of the Pakistani Taliban. It is even more important than Bin Laden's death because dead men don't talk. Headley's testimony – if substantiated – will finally provide ample evidence to identify at least some of the men inside Pakistan's military-intelligence apparatus who are cooperating with terrorists as a means to further Pakistan's military and diplomatic interests.
To be sure, Pakistan is prepared to offset the damage and deal with critical lawmakers in Washington who want more concrete action against Pakistan in the aftermath of Bin Laden's death. To soothe relations, they've managed to circulate the news that the ISI is initiating a manhunt for the capture of the Taliban's leader Mullah Omar, who is believed to be hiding in the country's southwest – many already suspect he's being sheltered by the Pakistani government. On the other hand, Pakistani lawmakers are also threatening to cut Nato supply lines into Afghanistan from Pakistan unless the US stops drone attacks on suspected terrorists targets inside Pakistani territory.
Of course, Pakistan has many more wanted terrorists inside its territory, which it can offer up to regain Washington's favour when Headley's case starts getting more coverage in the United States. The war in Afghanistan will also undoubtedly constantly remind the White House that it needs Pakistan in order to supply troops and aid into Afghanistan. But what Pakistan is not prepared for is the role India is likely to play once Headley gives his testimony at the hearing.
While Bin Laden's case was taken up mostly by the American public, which can be quietly ignored unless an election is looming, and the government of Afghanistan, which really has nothing to offer to the US government and is thus irrelevant, Headley's case is different. Not only does India – the target of the deadliest attack in which Headley was involved – is furious over Pakistan's involvement in that attack, but it is also one of the largest trading partners of the United States, with over $12bn-worth of trade in the first four months of 2011 alone.
And India is in no mood to play the peaceful neighbour when evidence keeps piling up that corroborates Pakistan's involvement in the deaths of innocent Indians.
Last week, India started large-scale military exercises close to Pakistan's borders. Over 20,000 troops were involved at a time when India has already denounced Pakistan as a sanctuary for terrorists. The countries have already fought three wars over the disputed region of Kashmir, which is currently divided between them. Just this weekend, a border skirmish between the two countries' armies left 1 dead and 15 injured.
The Indian media is already upping the ante, and coverage of Headley's case has been frenzied and almost continuous in the country's newspapers. This means that not only the government of India, but also ordinary Indians are enraged at what they deem is US inaction against an enemy they perceive to be directly involved in terrorist attacks on their soil.
What the US government faces now is a reckoning that should had been made long ago with regard to Pakistan's support for terrorists. And for Pakistan, time is running out. When Headley's testimony starts making headlines in the US media, as the case of Zacarias Moussaoui did, the Indian government is likely to start pressuring the US government to force Pakistan into purging elements supporting terrorists from the ranks of its military and intelligence service.
That pressure will not just carry the weight of truth and reason, but also the might of billions of dollars in trade and a partnership that is flourishing economically and diplomatically. Given the anger felt towards Pakistan in India after the Mumbai terror attack, there might be another confrontation looming between the two nations which the US cannot possibly afford while it is engaged in stamping out insurgency in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas. The question is: does Pakistan realise that it may finally be losing its leverage with the US?