The tower of rabble

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New Delhi may have to pay for its confused reactions to Pakistani overtures

Prem Shankar Jha

Prem Shankar Jha 
Senior Journalist

LAST MONTH General Mahmud Durrani, former Pakistan ambassador to the US and National Security Adviser to President Asif Ali Zardari delivered the first RK Mishra Memorial Lecture in New Delhi. It was apparent within minutes that he was not speaking solely in his personal capacity but had come to India with a message. The message was straightforward. India and Pakistan could no longer afford to continue thinking of each other as enemies. Today they faced a common threat from Al Qaeda-linked global terrorism and needed to work together to meet it. The first essential step was to change our mindsets: forgive the sins of the past and think resolutely of the future. The second was to accept each others’ limitations when it came to what each asked of the other.

More than an earful US soldiers fire mortars during a battle with Taliban fighters
More than an earful US soldiers fire mortars during a battle with Taliban fighters
Photo: Reuters

Durrani was candid about what Pakistan could and could not do. Terrorism in Pakistan had taken on a life of its own. No government in Islamabad, and not even the Pakistan army, could any longer guarantee that there would be no more terrorist attacks on India. Durrani urged New Delhi not to break off talks, especially the composite dialogue, every time there was an attack; not to reduce the issue of visas, not to discourage access to Pakistani TV channels and to restrain the Indian media from pointing fingers reflexively at ‘Pakistan’ whenever there was a terrorist outrage. All these handed victory to terrorists, increasing the likelihood of another attack.

Asking for more understanding of the constraints within which Pakistan was investigating the perpetrators of 26/11, he urged Indians to recognise and accept Pakistan for what it really was — an infant state in crisis, with a fragmented structure of authority in which power was divided between a weak elected government and a powerful army that was, nonetheless, aware of its loss of popularity with the people. India-Pakistan relations had blossomed under General Musharraf because he had commanded both wings of the state. Today, said Durrani, it was not enough to deal with the Zardari government. It was imperative for New Delhi to somehow address the concerns of the security establishment in Pakistan. The same, of course, applied in reverse.

Durrani also asked the Indian intelligentsia to discard the notion that Pakistan was still playing a double game, treating the Taliban with kid gloves in the secret hope that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan would restore its ‘defence in depth’ against India. In the last year the number of soldiers deployed against the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had risen from 90,000 to 1,50,000. The army was now using heavy weapons against the Jihadis and had inducted the air force into the war. The government was also letting the US use Predators to kill Taliban leaders. The Taliban were responding with bombings and suicide attacks. This was bareknuckled, no-holds-barred war.

Five days after his lecture, in a quiet but unmistakable affirmation of his mission, ISI chief Lt-Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha attended the Indian High Commissioner’s Iftar in Islamabad and urged that there should be more such interactions between the two countries. At about the same time the Zardari government announced that it would introduce legislation that would take the power to make war out of the hands of the army and put it firmly into those of the cabinet.

Regrettably, New Delhi’s reaction to these overtures has so far been contradictory and confused. It has gone from a general demand that Islamabad punish the guilty of 26/11 to the specific demand that it punish the head of the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Hafiz Mohammad Sayeed. Home Minister P Chidambaram has, with some justification, rubbished the Pakistani claim that India has not provided sufficient evidence to indict Sayeed. But he could have been more understanding of Pakistan’s need for truly strong evidence before it can move against such an iconic figure.

SIMILARLY, DELHI has, by degrees, made the successful prosecution of those arrested for 26/11 into a precondition for the resumption of the composite dialogue and of the civil society links that helped bring about a rapprochement in 2002, but were sundered by 26/11. But New Delhi’s most counterproductive act has been its pro forma protest against Pakistan building a dam in PoK, on the grounds that all of PoK is a part of India. With this single statement it has not only knocked the bottom out of the Simla agreement which had all but recognised the de facto border in Kashmir, but also of the Manmohan–Musharraf agreement of 2005 to settle the Kashmir dispute by softening the border in Kashmir. To gauge its impact on Pakistani civil society, Indians have only to remember how they feel when Beijing affirms that Arunachal Pradesh belongs to China.

Only one person has shown an understanding of, even empathy with, Pakistan’s plight. Fortunately he is the prime minister of India. Both Manmohan Singh’s opening remark at Yekaterinburg, that he had come to discuss “how Pakistan can deliver on its assurances that its territory will not be used for terrorist attacks on India”, and his agreement to include Balochistan in future talks, were aimed at the Pakistan army, the former as warning and the latter as confidence- building overture. But Manmohan Singh’s voice has been lost in the Tower of Babel that India has become.

Delhi’s confusion reveals that policymakers have still to grasp the seriousness of the threat that hangs over the subcontinent, a threat emanating from Afghanistan. Forced to work with a government of questionable mandate, having failed so far to find any ‘moderate’ Taliban to win over, and with EU support for the Afghan war on the wane, the US is looking for an honourable exit from Afghanistan. That exit, when it occurs, will be interpreted throughout the Muslim world as a victory for not only the Taliban but also Al Qaeda.

How will Pakistan deal with the Taliban who are used to the status and income the gun gives them?

The effect on Pakistani civil society will be ruinous. Unemployable, madrasa-educated Pakistani youth in southern Punjab and elsewhere will flock to join the Al Qaeda-linked tanzeems. The victorious Afghan Taliban will enter Pakistan in thousands to join the fight against the Pakistan army and to ‘reclaim’ the part of Afghanistan that was lost to the British. In the worst case scenario, the Pakistan army might have no choice but to sue for peace. But how will Pakistan deal with the tens of thousands of Taliban who have grown accustomed to the power, status and income that the gun has given them? There is one easy option: divert them to Kashmir.

Both countries need a common strategy to contain the fallout of a Taliban ‘victory’, should this occur. But doubts linger about each other’s sincerity. The way to test it is to start with small acts of trust and see how the other responds. Two possibilities that come to mind are the offer of a no-war pact by India, and an invitation by Pakistan for a few CBI officers to join their investigations (to be reciprocated by India).

Replacing suspicion with trust is a long, slow process. We have no time to lose.

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