Prem Shankar Jha
LAST WEEK, relations between India and Pakistan touched a nadir not seen since Operation Parakram, launched eight years ago following the attack on Parliament. The eagerly awaited Foreign Secretaries’ talks turned out to be a dialogue of the deaf. And the meeting itself was bracketed by two hideous terrorist attacks, in Pune and Kabul, that broke 14 months of absolute calm in mainland India.
Is the resumption of targeted attacks on Indian civilians accidental, or does it herald a change for the worse in Indo-Pak relations? The first can be ruled out, because the break in the pattern is too abrupt to be a product of chance. But if there is a design in the recent attacks, it is by no means an obvious one.
The timing of the last two attacks — one just before and the other a day after the Foreign Secretary-level talks in Delhi — points to Al Qaeda-linked orga nisations in Pakistan. The Al Qaeda stamp is clearly visible in the deliberate choice of targets with the intention of killing foreigners. These attacks bear a marked resemblance to the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai, where the Taj and Oberoi hotels and Café Leopold in Colaba were chosen because they are popular with foreigners.
The latest attacks therefore bear witness to the growing ties between Al Qaeda and terrorist organisations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. This explains Islamabad’s growing exasperation at New Delhi’s refusal to normalise relations with Pakistan till it punishes the architects of the 26/11 attack, and its repeated threats of instant retaliation if there is another 26/11-type attack in the near future. The only effect these tactics will have, they say, is to turn both countries into hostages of Al Qaeda and its cohorts in Pakistan.
Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed virtually announced the terror attack on Pune four days before the event
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s categorical assertion that India will not break off talks despite the Pune and Kabul attacks shows that he is fully aware of the danger and is determined to avert it. But carrying the peace process forward may no longer be as easy as it would have been even six months ago. Some features of the recent attacks raise the troubling possibility that Pakistan’s army, if not its civilian government, has lost its taste for peace with India and may once again be considering using jihadi organisations as instruments of foreign policy.
There have been several straws in the wind. Hafiz Saeed, head of the Lashkar and the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, virtually announced the attack on Pune in a public statement four days before it occurred. The justification he gave for his ‘jihad’ was that India was holding back Punjab river waters and starving Pakistani farmers of water. Not only did Islamabad not pull him in for questioning when the attack took place, but it made no attempt to distance itself from Saeed’s claim that India was starving Pakistani farmers by stealing their water. Not surprisingly, on Saturday February 27, an emboldened Saeed threatened again to unleash “war” on India, this time to force it to start talking to Pakistan about Kashmir. Again, Islamabad has not uttered a single word of censure.
Although the Indian-favoured guest house in Kabul attacked on February 27 was only one of three foreigner haunts, its choice was significant because the Pakistan army has made no secret of its extreme allergy to the Indian presence in Afghanistan, and because the ISI has been conclusively linked to the first attack, on the Indian embassy in July 2008.
The attack on the guest house came only three weeks after Pakistan army chief General Parvez Kayani’s explicit declaration on February 1, at a press conference for foreign correspondents in Islamabad from which Indian journalists were excluded, that India remained Pakistan’s main enemy. Pakistan therefore needed “a friendly Afghanistan” behind it in order to acquire “defence in depth”. Pakistan, he told the west, could deliver a “win-win situation” in Afghanistan to the US. But it could only do so if it was given full control of the recruitment and the training of the Afghan National Army. Only that would ensure that Pakistan had a friendly army to its rear.
Ensuring this required that India cease its involvement in Afghan affairs, and especially have nothing to do with training its army. The attack on the guest house could therefore presage a return to the policy of using jihadi organisations as proxies in foreign policy.
Which of these is the correct interpretation of recent events? This is a question that New Delhi has been debating for the last 15 months. The sharp differences of opinion between those who believe that the Pakistan army is caught in a time warp and cannot see anything beyond its enmity with India, and those who advocate a frank dialogue to allay the suspicions of the Pakistani establishment and pave the way for a joint approach to terrorism and Afghanistan has paralysed the government and precluded any new initiative. But the time for developing a common approach has all but run out.
Kayani would not have been able to wave both the stick and the carrot quite so openly had he not been reasonably sure that the Obama administration would fall in line because it had run out of options. With the US having set a date for starting to withdraw from Afghanistan, Pakistan too has run out of options. For seven years after the US invasion of Afghanistan, the Pakistan army did all it could to minimise its involvement in America’s war. It turned a Nelson’s eye to the rise of the Taliban in tribal areas and continued to stoke a low-intensity conflict in Kashmir to justify not moving its huge army from the Indian border.
Kayani has been able to wield carrot and stick since he is sure the Obama regime has run out of options
It only woke up to the cost of this strategy when the Taliban overran Swat in 2008. It then discovered that the Taliban had swallowed a tenth of Pakistan and captured the imagination of half the unemployed youth of Punjab — and that a section of it was intent on capturing the Pakistani state itself.
ONLY THEN did it join battle against the Al Qaedalinked Taliban in earnest. But within months of doing so, its worst nightmare came to pass when the US announced that it was ready to pull up its stakes and leave. Since then, the Pakistan army has been engaged in damage limitation. Kayani’s press conference was the first step. But since then, the outlines of Pakistan’s new policy have become clearer day by day. By arresting three of the top leaders of Mullah Umar’s Quetta Shura, including the Taliban’s military commander Mullah Baradar, Islamabad has shown the world that it has the shura at its mercy and can wind it up whenever it wants.
Some of Pakistan’s recent actions also foreshadow the policy it is likely to adopt to safeguard its future. It intends to continue Musharraf’s policy of maintaining a truce with the Haqqani faction of the Taliban in north Waziristan. When the US and ISAF finally leave Afghanistan, Pakistan’s conflict with the Haqqani faction will automatically end. It also hopes to crush the Al Qaeda-linked Taliban in south Waziristan, Swat and the NWFP. This is a tall order for, as Kayani well knows, the Taliban have been dispersed but not destroyed. But Kayani could be pinning his hopes on the belief that the departure of the foreigners from Afghanistan will reduce their appeal for the ordinary Pathans and make it easier for the army to regain control. The US seems to have bought the plan. It is now Delhi’s turn to decide where this will leave India.