Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
India and Pakistan have agreed to try to improve trade ties during the first meeting of their commerce secretaries since the November 2008 attack on Mumbai. The official statement released after the talks in Islamabad suggests the agreement is so far largely aspirational, with working committees set up to look at everything from tariff barriers, to India selling electricity to Pakistan, to visas for businessmen.
But the aspiration in itself represents a dramatic shift in relations between India and Pakistan, who have embarked on what may turn out to be their most organised, if slow, attempt at peace-making in their history. Pakistan has in the past been wary of a a gradual approach to peace-making, fearing India would try to normalise ties while maintaining the status quo on Kashmir. The Indian government has said that it is ready to discuss all issues, including Kashmir.
Reflecting that aspirational shift, India’s Business Standard called the trade talks “a game-changer”. Mint newspaper noted that trade between India and Pakistan now amounts to only $2 billion, compared to India’s global trade of about $600 billion. It quoted Biswajit Dhar, head of Delhi-based think tank Research and Information System for Developing Countries, as saying that, “if trade relations improve, there will be movement on the political level because a constituency for peace will be created for better ties.”
It also quoted former Indian foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal as dismissing the proposals as “timid and tentative”. “Setting up a joint working group means postponing decisions that they could have taken soon. This is to maintain the appearance of movement that fits into the objectives of both countries,” he said. “Pakistan will never allow itself to become energy dependent on India till there is tangible progress in bilateral relations.”
During a visit to Beijing in late 2009, President Barack Obama asked China to help stabilise Pakistan and Afghanistan. The logic was obvious. China is a long-standing ally of Pakistan with growing investments there and in Afghanistan; it has the money to pay for the economic development and trade both countries need; and with its own worries about its Uighur minority, it is suspicious of militant Islamists. The challenge was in achieving this without angering India, which fought a border war with China in 1962 and is wary of its alliance with Pakistan.
A year-and-a-half on, efforts to forge that economic cooperation between China, Pakistan and Afghanistan are in full swing – though perhaps not entirely in the way Obama envisaged. The Wall Street quoted Afghan officials as saying that Pakistan was lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the United States, urging him instead to look to Pakistan and China for help.
For some time, Pakistan has been complaining that it is unfairly criticised for failing to fight al Qaeda-linked insurgents on its side of the border when U.S.-led troops in Afghanistan are also struggling to make headway. This has been particularly the case in Bajaur, where Pakistan said its own military operation against militants were undermined by a decision to pull Western troops back from neighbouring Kunar in Afghanistan. The row over who is to blame for not doing enough to prevent militants moving back and forth across the border between Bajaur and Kunar has been both a reflection of the distrust in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and a persistent source of strain.
The mantra, repeated so often that it is rarely questioned, is that al Qaeda’s safe havens are in Pakistan. That is partially true – the organisation is believed to have secure bases in various parts of Pakistan’s tribal areas. But Pakistani officials respond by saying that al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents also have safe havens inside Afghanistan. And just as the Pakistan Army is unwilling to fight in every part of the tribal areas at once – it has resisted U.S. pressure to launch a full-scale military operation in North Waziristan – the U.S. Army is also reluctant to spread out its troops too thinly, choosing instead to focus on populated areas.
(The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The writer is Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the UK)
WILL PAKISTAN GO THE MIDDLE EAST WAY?
By Wajid Shamsul Hasan
Some of our analysts are drawing a parallel between the ongoing wave for democracy across the Middle East and hoping that Pakistan might follow suit. In fact they are talking of an impending revolution in Pakistan as well.
I have never read “Three Cups of Tea”, Greg Mortenson’s book about building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I tried to read the sequel, “Stones into Schools” and gave up not too long after the point where he said that, “the solution to every problem … begins with drinking tea.” Having drunk tea in many parts of South Asia – sweet tea, salt tea, butter tea, tea that comes with the impossible-to-remove-with-dignity thick skin of milk tea – I can confidently say that statement does not reflect reality.
So I have always been a bit puzzled that the Americans took Mortenson’s books so much to heart. Yes, I knew he boasted that his books had become required reading for American officers posted to Afghanistan; and yes, there is the glowing praise from Admiral Mike Mullen on the cover of ”Stones into Schools”, where he wrote that “he’s shaping the very future of a region”. But I had always believed, or wanted to believe, that at the back of everyone’s minds they realised that saccharine sentimentality was no substitute for serious analysis. Just as hope is not a strategy, drinking tea is not a policy. (To be fair to the Americans, I have also overheard a British officer extolling the virtues of drinking tea in Afghanistan.)
If there was one thing the United States might have learned in a decade of war is that military might alone cannot compensate for lack of knowledge about people and conditions on the ground. That was true in Afghanistan and Iraq, and may also turn out to be the case in Libya.
Yet the heated debate about using Predator drones to target militants in the tribal areas of Pakistan – triggered by the spy row between the CIA and the ISI – appears to be falling into a familiar pattern – keep bombing versus stop bombing. Not whether, when and how drones might be effective, based on specific conditions and knowledge of the ground, and when they are counter-productive.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has written a letter to the Supreme Court to review the hanging of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto — the country’s first popularly-elected prime minister — over three decades ago.
The reopening of Bhutto’s case was one of the long-running demands of the supporters of the charismatic leader but critics say the timing of Zardari’s move was intriguing.
Given the history of India and Pakistan, it is easy to be sceptical about the chances of their latest peace initiative. So let’s start with the positives.
Unlike past peace efforts which have veered between ill-prepared personal initiatives by political leaders and technical talks between bureaucrats which foundered for lack of direction from the top, the current phase combines the two. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s impromptu invitation to his Pakistani counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani to watch last week’s India-Pakistan cricket semi-final coincided with the resumption of the first structured dialogue between the two countries since the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai. The foreign secretaries, or top diplomats, of India and Pakistan met in Thimphu, Bhutan in February. In talks last week, the home secretaries of the two countries made progress in coordinating their investigations into the Mumbai attacks; the trade secretaries are expected to meet soon, as are the defence secretaries.