PREM SHANKAR JHA
IT MAY have been a coincidence that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh agreed to restart the stalled dialogue with Pakistan within a fortnight of changing his National Security Adviser. But it is certainly no coincidence that the terrorist attack at the German bakery at Pune, the first to take place in more than 14 months, occurred only nine days later.
The attack has been all but owned by the Lashkar-e-Taiba, for the deputy chief of its parent body the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Abdur Rahman Makki, named three targets including Pune, at a February 5 rally protesting the resumption of talks. The sheer speed of the Lashkar reaction makes it almost certain that it was executed by cohorts recruited or embedded in India. If further investigation confirms this, then it will greatly strengthen the probability that the attack was planned by Al Qaeda-linked groups in Pakistan that are under severe pressure in Waziristan to prevent any further shift of Pakistani troops from the Indian to the Afghan border.
Indeed their goals may be more ambitious: as US analysts have noted, Al Qaeda attacks often come in groups. Makki’s warning could very well mean, therefore, that Delhi, Kanpur and other cities will also come under attack very soon. This makes it all the more important for members of the government and the media, to exercise restraint in their statements and avoid coming to hasty conclusions, for doing so will only play into Al Qaeda’s hands.
The Pune outrage has therefore greatly increased the urgency that surrounds the resumption of foreign secretary-level talks. What is more, these cannot be allowed to proceed at the glacial pace of the years before 26/11, for the longer they drag on the more desperate will Al Qaeda’s efforts become to trigger a war between the two countries.
Unfortunately while the need for talks has grown, the prospect of yielding decisions that reduce tension and increase cooperation between the two countries has declined sharply in recent months. The main reason is the weakening of the American resolve to stay the course in Afghanistan reflected in President Barack Obama’s announcement that the US will begin pulling out troops from July 2011. Pakistan initially reacted to the Obama plan with consternation. But since then it has decided to make the best of the new situation to extract the maximum that it can from the Obama government. This was spelt out by Pakistan Army chief General Parvez Kayani at a specially arranged interview to the foreign media in Islamabad.
Pakistan, he said, was both willing and able to turn Afghanistan into “a win-win (situation) for Afghanistan, the US, ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and Pakistan”. Its army had so far lost 2,273 officers and men in 209 major and 510 minor operations in 10 tribal regions, Kayani said. The army had tamed South Waziristan and “broken the myth that Waziristan cannot be controlled”, he added. It had deployed a division in North Waziristan and kept the region quiet. It was prepared to do a great deal more, but there had to be a quid pro quo: a clear understanding of Pakistan’s security concerns in the region. The most important of these was its need for strategic depth in Afghanistan. Pakistan could only attain this if it was accepted as the primary means for ensuring “a peaceful and friendly Afghanistan”, Kayani said.
Pakistan wants to elbow India out of Afghanistan. This is not acceptable to New Delhi
Afghanistan, he felt, would only be able to provide Pakistan with defence in depth if it was peaceful and friendly. The latter condition would not be fulfilled if the Afghan army developed the capacity to threaten Pakistan from the west. In his view, Pakistan would never be sure that it would not be attacked from the rear if three quarters of the army was drawn, as it is today, from non-Pashtun Afghans and if it was trained by the Indian Army. Thus, an essential precondition for Pakistan to participate wholeheartedly in the Obama strategy was that India should stop training the Afghan army and both training and recruitment be handed over to the Pakistan army, Kayani said. Indian influence in Afghanistan therefore had to be minimised in every possible way.
Kayani told the assembled reporters that he had already conveyed his concerns to NATO and the US. He bluntly warned the US that not meeting his needs would create “an environment hostile to Pakistan (that) could strain its battle against militancy and extremism”.
Kayani’s statement thus marks a 180-degree turn from the position that Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and other civilian leaders had taken in the months after 26/11 that terrorism posed a threat to both India and Pakistan and, therefore, had to be faced together. Kayani, by contrast, has made it clear that India remains Pakistan’s main enemy and that it needs a compliant Afghanistan with an army that it can control at its rear. If the US and ISAF want an honourable exit from Afghanistan they would do well to push India out of that country altogether.
What is more, the timing of Kayani’s news conference — held on the eve of the US/ ISAF’s much-publicised “surge” into Helmand province in southwest Afghanistan — shows that these are not the army’s views alone but those of the entire Pakistan government. For the conference was designed to take advantage of the US’ growing desperation to find a way out of the Afghan quagmire and remind it that the outcome depends entirely on an unimpeded flow of war material to the front through Pakistan.
Barack Obama’s hurry to get out of Afghanistan has made Pakistan want much, much more
Anyone not blinded by panic and grasping at straws would see within moments that Kayani’s thesis is as full of holes as Swiss cheese. Pakistan is not even close to controlling the territory of South Waziristan. By his own admission, the Taliban in Waziristan, Swat, Buner and elsewhere have simply melted away into the adjoining districts. By saying that he has one sole division “stationed” (not operating) in North Waziristan, Kayani has reiterated that he does not intend to attack the Pashtun warlord Sirajuddin Haqqani’s forces in that region. This could defeat the purpose of the current US-ISAF surge and enable the Taliban to cross over into South and North Waziristan. Lastly, Kayani’s belief that it will be possible to replace the non-Pashtun majority in the Afghan army with Pashtuns and then be able to control them from Islamabad is at best a pipedream. Attempting to oust the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Shias and other non-Pashtuns from the army will bring Afghanistan close to a civil war once more. And since all attempts to separate the good Taliban from the bad Taliban have failed so far, success in the future looks questionable to say the least.
But since the US has run out of both ideas and options, it has no alternative but to hope that Pakistan will be able to live up to its promises. Since these are conditional on getting India out of Afghanistan it would be surprising indeed if Washington is not already putting pressure on Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to stall on the induction of Indian trainers for the Afghan army and not renew the contracts of those who are already there.
In these changed circumstances it is difficult to see what purpose the resumption of talks with Pakistan will serve. All that talks now can do is to make it clear to the Al Qaeda-linked groups in Pakistan that India will not allow them to provoke an attack from the east.
At one time this may have been reassurance enough for Islamabad, but Obama’s hurry to get out of Afghanistan has made Pakistan want much, much more. It is doubtful if any elected government in India can, or indeed should, meet these demands.