$10m US bounty on Hafiz Saeed will remain an uncashed cheque

The $10 million bounty that the US put on Lashkar-e-Taiba’s terrorist-in-chief Hafiz Saeed has predictably given rise to much celebratory exultation in Indian media commentaries.

It is seen as a vindication of India’s claims that Saeed and the terror machine that he commands haven’t received sufficient punitive attention from the US, which was rather more preoccupied with terror groups that were targeting NATO troops in Afghanistan than with an outfit that spills Indian blood.

The offer of a reward, they claim, represents a significant reversal of that neglect, which remedies in some ways a prevailing “double standard” in the US perception of terror.

India has over the years slowly built a persuasive case to pin down official Pakistani complicity in Saeed’s terror-mongering in Kashmir and in other parts of India, most spectacularly in November 2008 in Mumbai. Yet, by resorting to perverse legal gymnastics, the Pakistani establishment has made a mockery of it all by claiming that the evidence that India has thus far presented against Saeed does not meet the most exacting standards of the “independent” Pakistani judiciary.

Hafiz Saeed is not hiding in a cave because he feels safe in Pakistan. Faisal Mahmood/Reuters

So, will the offer of a $10 million reward for information leading to Saeed’s capture change the dynamics of the Pakistan establishment’s dealings with Saeed?

Not one bit. Offers for a bounty work best only when the whereabouts of the hunted are not known; in such a context, a bounty provides an incentive for anyone with information to provide vital leads that lead to the capture.

But in Saeed’s case, as he himself pointed out in an interview to Al Jazeera, it’s not as if he is hiding in a cave or has otherwise gone underground. Saeed openly struts his incendiary stuff on the playground for terror that Pakistan has become: he enjoys state patronage from the ISI, and operates in full public glare.

It’s worth recalling that there was a bounty on Osama bin Laden’s head too, but in all the time that he was living in stately comfort in Pakistan, no one who knew of his presence in Pakistan ever “cashed that cheque”.

The Pakistani state, as strategic affairs analyst Praveen Swami observes, has compelling reasons not to act against Saeed even now. “He is well-connected with the ISI, has worked for them for years, and whaterver he says in court tomorrow will be deeply embarrassing for the Pakistani state,” he told CNN-IBN.

Plus, Saeed has tens of thousands of supporters, many of them armed, who will train their guns at the Pakistani security forces if ever it made bold to act against the man. “Pakistan has enough problems on his hands, and won’t want to add to them by taking action against Saeed.”

In any case, Swami adds, just as former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said of Dawood Ibrahim, the king of the underworld, there are many people in the Pakistani establishment who think that Saeed is a useful asset against India and a great guy who has done good by Pakistan.

AK Doval, former director of the Intelligence Bureau, too observes that unless the Pakistani state fundamentally changes its character and its decision-making process, there is no possibility that Saeed will either be handed over for trial in India – or even be tried in Pakistani courts.

Leela Ponappa, former Deputy National Security Advisor, says that India ought not to get overly excited by the mere fact that the US has put Saeed on its list of most wanted terrorists. Pakistan, she notes, “continues to be in denial” and has resorted to the “massive legal trivialisation” of the case against Saeed in the Mumbai terror attacks, saying the evidence presented wasn’t strong enough. “Pakistan essentially wants India to forget about the Mumbai attacks.”

The US, adds Ponappa, has traditionally acted selectively even in dealing with terrorism. Even the timing of the most recent event shows that the US is only acting in its own self-interest. “But it appears that they are on a learning curve, and this latest event represents a progression in their thinking,” she notes.

Mohamed Malick, editor of Pakistani daily The News, points out that the bounty offer comes at a time when the US is in the middle of renegotiating its terms of engagement with Pakistan. “Pakistan is playing hard to get.” There is a parliamentary debate going on about whether to reopen supply routes for NATO troops operating in Afghanistan. Pakistan, therefore, perceives the offer of a bounty on Saeed as “one of the pressure tactics, as a bargaining chip.”

“I wouldn’t get too excited if I were India,” says Malick.

In the end, the bounty on Saeed has been reduced to a geopolitical game, which is a shame, says Swami. “This case is not about geopolitics: it’s about a criminal who has the blood of 166 people on his hands, and it is incumbent on decent people in Pakistan to bring this man to account.”

There may be reasons why the Pakistan government wants to shy away from doing what it should, but it is downright cynical and depressing to hear alibis for such inaction by people who claim that the criminal justice system is complicated. “It’s indecent,” Swami adds.

And that's something that's unlikely to change.

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