India should evolve a joint strategy with Pakistan to fight terror and build a regional initiative on Afghanistan.
Two things that happened in the subcontinent last Wednesday promise to be a game changer in regional politics. That they happened simultaneously in India and Pakistan and manifested an unspoken harmony of spirit — although by no means coordinated — make them meaningful. First, seldom, if ever, would soft-spoken Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram feel the need to raise his voice and firmly contradict a newspaper story — as he did on Wednesday in the Indian capital. But then, the New York Times story was, as Mr. Chidambaram said, “highly exaggerated.”
It was based on the musings of an erstwhile “unidentified” Pakistani militant commander who apparently fell out of favour with his mentors in the security establishment in Islamabad for unknown reasons, to the effect that the Pakistani military establishment is keeping in reserve an army of trained Kashmiri militants numbering 14,000 to be unleashed on India at a future date. The import of the narrative is all too apparent: succinctly put, India is barking up the wrong tree by trying to sustain a dialogue with Pakistan. From a slightly different angle, the message is also that India and the United States are sailing in the same boat and that the commonality of interests demands that they act in concert to squeeze Pakistan — a sort of variant of the “hammer-and-anvil” proposition that U.S. commander in Afghanistan David Petraeus used to propose to the Pakistani army chief, Parvez Kayani, in happier times with the intent to squeeze the Pashtun tribes on the Durand Line.
Equally, on Wednesday, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani made a significant speech in Mingora in the Swat valley — not far from Jammu and Kashmir. From all accounts, the speech had two halves — one full of unease over the U.S.' recent attempts to destabilise Pakistan and the other an overture to India. Mr. Gilani said: “Pakistan views India as the most important neighbour and desires sustained, substantive and result-oriented process of dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues, including the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir. We sincerely hope that [the] ongoing process of comprehensive engagement will be fruitful. However, India will have to play a more positive and accommodating role and respond to Pakistan's legitimate security concerns.” Mr. Gilani travelled to Swat with General Kayani and they shared the podium from where the Prime Minister made his speech. Clearly, there is a larger backdrop.
It all goes back to the detention of the U.S. intelligence operative and former army man, Raymond Davis, in Lahore in January in circumstances that are not still quite clear. At any rate, ever since Mr. Davis' detention in January, the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been in disarray. Mr. Davis was kept under detention for two months and subjected to intense grilling. It stands to reason that the Pakistani authorities got to know all that they wanted to know and were afraid to ask their American allies for quite some time about the gamut of their covert activities in Pakistan — vis-à-vis insurgent groups and the Pakistani military and security establishment. The chilling truth is that U.S. President Barack Obama personally intervened to get Mr. Davis released but Pakistan held on to him for yet another month in an extraordinary display of defiance. Suffice to say, the alchemy of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship has since changed almost unrecognisably — from both ends.
Pakistan promptly began acting on Mr. Davis' revelations and drew the famous “red lines” — asking the U.S. (and the British) military personnel to leave; demanding that the U.S. cease its covert operations on Pakistani soil; insisting that future cooperation in intelligence should be based on explicit ground rules. In short, Pakistan understood that the U.S. had gone about establishing direct talks with the Taliban, keeping it out of the loop. A fundamental contradiction has arisen. Pakistan's cooperation in the U.S.-led war — starting from the seminal understanding reached between the two countries following the crucial visit by Secretary of State Colin Powell to Islamabad on October 16, 2001 — has been predicated on the American pledge that Islamabad would be a key player in any Afghanistan settlement and Washington would accommodate Pakistan's legitimate security interests.
But then, the war has transformed, the regional environment has changed and U.S.' priorities have changed. What began as a Texan-style revenge act against the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington is today imbued with the hidden agenda of the U.S.' regional strategies. It has become imperative for the U.S. to deal directly with the Taliban and not through intermediaries. Admittedly, the U.S. is looking for an end to the war and is willing to accommodate the Taliban, provided the latter acquiesces to its military bases in Afghanistan.
However, Washington has factored in that after the Davis affair, there is no way Pakistan would cooperate with a U.S. strategy to establish a permanent military presence in Afghanistan. Put simply, Pakistan can never trust the U.S.' intentions and Washington is aware of that. Thus was born the U.S. counterstrategy to turn the table on Pakistan. The sudden pullout of U.S. troops from Pech valley in the province of Kunar in eastern Afghanistan began on February 15 while Mr. Davis was under detention, and it was completed in two months' time. What followed since then was entirely predictable — various insurgent groups ranging from the Afghani and Pakistani Taliban, Hizb-i-Islami, al-Qaeda affiliates and the Lashkar-e-Taiba have consolidated their safe haven in Kunar. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. intelligence has already made contacts with some of them. Therefore, what began happening since May along the Durand Line can be aptly described as a “low-intensity war” against Pakistan.
Cross-border attacks, shelling, terrorist strikes and wanton destruction have become a daily occurrence. Armed groups come down from Kunar and neighbouring provinces to attack Pakistani forces, which retaliate with artillery fire; insurgent groups fight against each other; the conflict zone has expanded beyond FATA to Chitral mountains in the Northern Areas in the upper reaches of Kashmir. The implications are devastating for Pakistan. The Durand Line question has been ripped open. Some obscure snake charmer has summoned the serpent of Pashtun nationalism to raise its hood. Pakistan faces an existential challenge. For the snake charmer, this may seem the use of “smart power” to entrap the Pakistani military in a quagmire of Pashtun nationalism so that it has no energy left to dabble in Afghan affairs. And, this may also be “smart power” at its best. For, the tensions on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border also threaten to spoil the new atmospherics in Kabul-Islamabad ties — built around Pakistan's support for an ‘Afghan-led' and ‘Afghan-owned' peace process led by President Hamid Karzai.
Mr. Karzai is obliged to react to the violation of territorial integrity of his country, cross-border terrorism and Pashtun sub-nationalism. But he is also conscious of the criticality of sustaining cordial links with Islamabad since Pakistan is his key interlocutor for both building up a durable settlement and checkmating sustained American conspiracies to marginalise him. Mr. Karzai's predicament is vaguely similar to India's. The difference, of course, is that India's cooperation can actually be a “force multiplier” in the U.S.' strategy to isolate Pakistan.
But the Indian policymakers seem to continue to patiently plough the furrow of dialogue with Pakistan by taking a differentiated view of regional developments through the prism of India's long-term interests in a stable relationship with Pakistan. The tone of India-Pakistan statements has changed lately. Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao's acknowledgment of the incipient signs of Pakistan moving toward a rethink on terrorism has been carefully noted in Pakistan. Thus, Mr. Gilani's statement in Swat probably intends at reinforcing a salient in the India-Pakistan dialogue that is struggling to be born. That he made the statement in the presence of Gen. Kayani needs to be noted.
Indeed, this is not the time for India to display triumphalism that Pakistan faces a challenge to its integrity from the menace of the cross-border terrorism which, in many ways, it unleashed in the region. The fire in India's neighbourhood is spreading and it has reached the upper reaches of the Kashmir Valley. Statesmanship lies in evolving a joint India-Pakistan strategy to fight terrorism and to evolve a regional initiative on the Afghan problem. A critical mass is gradually accruing — to the effect that India and Pakistan's legitimate interests in the stabilisation of the Afghan situation are reconcilable. Afghanistan figured in Ms Rao's consultations in Tehran. The qualitative difference from the late 1990s is that neither Delhi nor Tehran is locked in a zero-sum game with Islamabad. The time is ripe for India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan to draw closer together as the regional stakeholders with the highest stakes in ending the war and stabilising Afghanistan.
Pakistan intends to host a trilateral summit with Iran and Afghanistan by the year-end, which could be an appropriate occasion for an enlarged regional initiative. However, for all this to gain traction, Pakistan must conclusively turn away from the use of force to settle differences with India.
(The writer is a former diplomat.)