The deportation of Sayed Zabiudd-in Ansari alias Abu Jundal from Saudi Arabia to India last week has implications beyond simply its unravelling of the 26/11 plot. Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari's spokesman exacerbated an evolving situation by a midnight flip-flop over the release of Sarabjit Singh, an Indian sentenced to death for terrorism.
Whatever the truth, the impression congeals of an administration bending to the will of jihadis and the military. The entire charade is conducted as the India-Pakistan parleys, christened as "talks" instead of "composite dialogue", loom in July at the foreign secretary level.
Abu Jundal's significance is as a live witness who links the 26/11 operation in Mumbai and Ajmal Kasab and his nine dead accomplices to the hatchers, financiers and handlers of the conspiracy in Pakistan, because he was in the control room in Karachi. Although Pakistan arrested some conspirators exempting their leader Hafiz Saeed, they in effect investigated reluctantly, discounted leads from the David Headley trial, scoffed at Indian dossiers, refused to furnish voice samples of those detainees suspected to be the callers from Karachi, pleaded procedural and evidentiary limitations and so on. While most voices in the 2008 recordings spoke a Punjabi-Urdu hybrid, one stood out for using Hindi lexicon, raising the possibility that this was the Indian link.
Painstaking work by Indian and undoubtedly the US agencies finally identified him as Abu Jundal, eventually tracing him to his Saudi refuge.
Abu Jundal's voice sample can now link him to the tapes and he can then identify the other gloating worthies committing murder by proxy. In evidentiary terms, Pakistan's excuses on paucity of evidence will now be redundant in the face of Abu Jundal testimony or confessions. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that Rehman Malik, now without ministerial rank over his suspected dual nationality, reverted to stone-walling and denial as Pakistan did immediately after 26/11. Abu Jundal, he said, is an Indian national, conspiring with indigenous Muslims and thus an Indian problem. He ignored mentioning that Saudis had, in fact, rejected Pakistani pleas that as Abu Jundal possessed a Pakistani passport he should be deported to Pakistan. Their concern is understandable as they may no longer be able to insulate state agencies and the top echelons of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba/Jammat-ud-Dawa from credible evidence of direct complicity.
Additionally, being the highest ranking Indian in the LeT and their link with the Indian modules, Abu Jundal can betray planned operations, network details and modus operandi of funding, training and recruitment. Once disrupted the modules take a long time to rebuild. It is thus necessary that competitive bidding between rival police and intelligence forces in India does not obstruct coordinated action.
Even more significant is its impact on Pakistan's relations with its three principal allies ie the US, China and Saudi Arabia. US-Pakistan relations have regressed to an extent that the US Congress is now attaching caveats to aid to deter Pakistan from collaboration with sundry radical allies like the Taliban, Haqqanis and Punjabi radical groups. It appears that Saudis are sending a similar signal to Pakistan, despite historically having tendered critical financial succour, mediated in domestic Pakistani squabbles, indoctrinated Pakistani clerics, used Pakistani troops for buttressing its security and even rumoured to have a link to Pakistan's nuclear programme. What then made Saudi Arabia hand-over such a major counter-terrorism asset to India?
Today, Saudi Arabia is buffeted by domestic and external factors. Arab Spring, leading to deposition of authoritarian regimes, some aligned to Saudis, rattled them enough to defray in 2011 $130 billion to their citizens. Despite their rising income, exploding population has arrested their per capita GDP at $20,000. To sustain their budget, oil price must remain above $80 per barrel. Their stand-off with Iran, symbolised by their support to the ruling family of Bahrain, being opposed by Bahrain's Shia majority, in addition to Iranian obduracy over their nuclear programme are also making them look beyond the US for allies. After their brutal fight against Al Qaeda in the kingdom in 2003-2006, their stock-market melted in 2006, remaining even today at 50 per cent below its peak. King Abdullah, ruling since 2005, is a pragmatist. His gradualist reform desire has been stymied by the remnants of the powerful clique of his seven half-brothers born to a Sudeiri mother, a favourite wife of his father. His predecessor King Fahd and two Crown Princes Sultan and Nayef, both dead in the last eight months, were Sudeiris. So too is the new Crown Prince Salman, though he is less of a status quoist than Nayef, who held the crucial position of interior minister till his death on June 16.
The youngest half-brother of King Abdullah is Prince Muqrim, born to a lowly Yemeni mother, but perceived as King's ally and thus made the head of intelligence. King Abdullah may thus just be beginning to assert.
The deportation of Abu Jundal is thus a strong message to Pakistan to get a grip on its jihadi networks, whom Saudis are now perceiving as a distraction if not a threat. Saudis are also factoring-in their rivalry with Iran and sending a signal to India to rebalance its relations with that country. This opens up immense strategic possibilities for India to contain Pakistan, reduce Indian dependence on Iranian oil, participate in the burgeoning Saudi economic development and become a key player in the Gulf security architecture. It is not a coincidence that India-US strategic engagement has concomitantly expanded. Pakistan may just discover that even its all-weather friend China may also be mulling a similar reassessment of the costs and benefits of their partnership with Pakistan. Pakistan's time for cost-free duplicity in counter-terrorism may be over.