Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has staked his political reputation on talks with Pakistan, earning in equal measure both praise and contempt from a domestic audience still burned by last November’s attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.
“I sincerely believe it is our obligation to keep the channels of communication open,” he said in a debate in parliament on Wednesday. ”Unless we talk directly to Pakistan we will have to rely on a third party to do so… Unless you want to go to war with Pakistan, there is no way, but to go step-by-step… dialogue and engagement are the best way forward,” Singh said.
That may sound like fairly anodyne stuff. But to recap, Singh signed a joint statement with Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani at a meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt this month in which both ordered their foreign secretaries — their top diplomats — to hold more talks to improve relations. Singh however also said the formal peace process — the so-called composite dialogue – could not be resumed until Pakistan took more action against those who organised the Mumbai attack.
The outcome was pretty much what was expected from the talks in Egypt, effectively forming a stepping stone between an ice-breaking meeting between Singh and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on the sidelines of a regional summit in Yekaterinburg in Russia in June and the next international forum where senior politicians from both countries will be present — September’s U.N. General Assembly (though Singh is not personally expected to attend.)
In the eight years since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, political pundits have used, and largely overused, all the available historical references. We have had the comparisons to the British 19th century failures there, to the Great Game, and to the Soviet Union’s disastrous experience in the 1980s. More recently, it has been labelled ”Obama’s Vietnam”.
The latest leitmotif is the domino theory - the view that Vietnam had to be saved from communism or other Asian countries would go the same way. In the case of Afghanistan, the argument is that if it falls to the Taliban, then Pakistan too might become vulnerable – an infinitely more dangerous proposition given that it is a country of some 170 million people with nuclear bombs.
When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the possibility in April of Islamist militants taking over Pakistan and its nuclear weapons, her words were dismissed as alarmist – and perhaps deliberately so as a way of putting pressure on Islamabad to act.
The problem with Pakistan is that it is almost impossible to come up with a view that is not either alarmist or complacent. It is such a complex country that nobody can agree a frame of reference for assessing the risk. It is the base for a bewildering array of militants including Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, al Qaeda and anti-India groups, yet also has a powerful and professional army which would be expected to defend to the last its Punjab heartland and nuclear weapons against a jihadi takeover. Its potent mix of poverty and Islamist sympathies among a significant section of the population make it ripe for revolution, yet it also has a strong and secular-minded civil society which was willing to go out into the streets earlier this year to demand an independent judiciary.
A crucial part of gunman Mohammad Ajmal Kasab's confession at the Mumbai attack trial has been censored by the judge on the grounds that it could inflame religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims in India. After stunning the court on Monday by admitting guilt in the the three-day rampage that killed 166 people, Kasab gave further testimony on Tuesday that included details about his training by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based militant group on U.S. and Indian terrorist lists.
The front-page report in today's The Hindu, which noted the judge's gag order in its sub-header, put it this way:
According to the New York Times, Pakistan has objected to the influx of U.S. troops into southern Afghanistan, saying this will drive Taliban militants across the border into its troubled Baluchistan province. It quotes a Pakistani intelligence official as saying that a Taliban spillover would force Pakistan to put more troops into Baluchistan, troops the country does not have right now.
The Pakistan Army has already moved into the Swat valley to clear out a Pakistani Taliban group there and is now preparing an offensive against Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in his stronghold in South Waziristan. At the same time it is unwilling to move significant numbers of troops away from the Indian border.
Joshua Foust is an American military analyst. He blogs about Central Asia and Afghanistan at Registan.net . Reuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.
It would be an understatement to call opium cultivation in Afghanistan America’s headache. The issue of illegal drug cultivation and smuggling has vexed policymakers for three decades, and led to a multi-billion dollar campaign to combat the phenomenon.
When France and Germany put years of enmity behind them after World War Two, they made a leap of faith in agreeing to entwine their economies so that war became impossible. With their economies now soldered by the euro, it can be easy to forget how deep their mutual distrust once ran - from the Napoleonic wars to the fall of Paris to Prussia in 1871, to the trenches of World War One and the Nazi occupation of France in World War Two.
As India and Pakistan begin yet another attempt to make peace, they face a similar challenge. Can they put aside years of distrust to build on a tentative thaw in relations?
Michael Cohen and Parag Khanna have become the latest to argue, in an article in Foreign Policy, that the real focus of President Barack Obama’s battle against the Taliban and al Qaeda should be Pakistan rather than Afghanistan.
“Preventing a return of al Qaeda to Afghanistan is important, but a long, state-building mission in one of the world’s most underdeveloped countries is the costliest and least effective way to accomplish that goal,” they write.
With India and Pakistan trying to reach a rapprochement on the sidelines of a summit in Egypt, it’s worth reading this summary by the Council on Foreign Relations – based on interviews with five South Asia experts – on why it matters across the region as far as Afghanistan.
The tensions between India and Pakistan have a powerful impact on stability in Afghanistan. They prevent the Pakistan Army from focusing fully on taking on the Taliban and other militant groups; the two countries are rivals for influence in Afghanistan itself; and both remain vulnerable to a fresh flare-up should Pakistan-based militants launch another Mumbai-style attack on India.
Even before Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Asif Ali Zardari broke the ice by meeting on the sidelines of a regional summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia last month, the real question over talks between India and Pakistan has not been about the form but the substance.
After the bitterness of last year’s attacks on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants, can India and Pakistan work their way back to a roadmap for an agreement on Kashmir reached two years ago? Although never finalised, the roadmap opened up the intellectual space for an eventual peace deal. This week’s meetings between India and Pakistan on the sidelines of a Non-Aligned Movement summit in Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt could give some clues on whether it has any chance of being revived.