Pakistan: Now or Never?

Perspectives on Pakistan

India, Pakistan detente: don’t trust, verify every step

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It’s clear for some time now that India and Pakistan are on the cusp of the kind of open  trade relationship they had until the 1965 war when all business links were snapped, border trading posts shut and overland Indian access to Afghanistan blocked. It was never to be the same again, despite fitful progress over the years.

On Saturday, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who has invested a great deal of personal credibility in a rapprochement with Pakistan, inaugurates a  $4 billion refinery in the northern state of Punjab , not far from the border with Pakistan. While   the bulk of the refinery, which is a joint venture between billionaire Lakshmi Mittal and an Indian state oil company will feed the hungry energy markets of India’s booming northern triangle, it stands to reason that some of the fuel sales will flow westwards, to Pakistan. The distance from Bhatinda where the 9 million tonne refinery is located to Pakistan’s heartland city of Lahore is about 100 miles.  If you don’t sell it to the market next door where else would you begin from ?  Pakistan’s refining capacity is half the domestic demand and last year it opened up diesel imports from India, although petrol and other petroleum products are still on a rapidly dwindling negative list.

If they begin piping fuel from the plant in Bhatinda to the Pakistani part of Punjab, and down the coast in Gujarat, if Reliance Industries’ huge refining complex in Jamnagar ships products to Karachi, you can imagine the game-changing effects of such interlocking economic stakes. Next up will be the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline which has been hobbled not just by security fears in Afghanistan, but the deep distrust between India and Pakistan, the two big markets at the far end of the pipe.   If Pakistan can buy refined fuel products from India, then perhaps New Delhi will have less fears about being held to ransom by Pakistani shutting off its natural gas supplies traversing through Pakistan soil.

Are the two over the hump then, ready to bury 65 years of hostility ? Not quite, going by an opposing series of actions.  India fired off its longest range missile this month which scientists said gives it the capability to launch inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and within days Pakistan tested its own long range nuclear capable missile. While India can argue that the 5,000 km range Agni V was  aimed at closing the deterrence gap with China, Pakistan’s Shaheen missile which defence experts say  is capable of hitting targets 2,500 km away brings virtually all of India in its range.  You could ask why does Pakistan need long range missiles when it can target Delhi which is barely 700 kms from Islamabad. Presumably the idea is to negate India’s strategic depth that Pakistan does not have. Then there is a steady Indian conventional arms buildup in line with its growing economy, and again, to find some level of parity with China. But some of that armour  including  state-of-the-art Rafale fighter planes, an aircraft carrier and nuclear-powered submarines could just as well be deployed on the west.

from Expert Zone:

U.S.-Afghan agreement: Issues to be addressed

(The views expressed in this column are the author's own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The draft strategic partnership agreement between the U.S. and Kabul to address their relationship after the completion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) withdrawal in 2014 has been arrived at after negotiations. The draft addresses the issues for ten years beyond 2014. A scrutiny of Afghan forces and the challenges they face highlights issues that merit inclusion in the agreement.

from India Insight:

Did pro-India militias kill Western tourists in Kashmir?

A government human rights commission in Kashmir on Tuesday evening said it will review records from the 1995 abduction of Western tourists after a new book claimed that four of six foreign tourists were murdered by a pro-India militia to discredit India’s arch-rival Pakistan.

On July 4, 1995, Americans Donald Hutchings and John Childs, as well as Britons Paul Wells and Keith Mangan were kidnapped by the little known Al-Faran militant group while trekking in the Himalayas near Pahalgam, 97 km (60 miles) southeast of Srinagar.

In India and Pakistan talks, an intimately tangled web

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Listening to Narendra Modi campaign for re-election in Gujarat in 2002 after some of the worst communal bloodletting in India’s history, one word was repeated so often that even I, with little knowledge of the language, could follow the meaning. “Pakistan”, he said, was the real threat to India. No matter that his opponents accused him of orchestrating violence in which some 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, died in retaliation for the burning of Hindu pilgrims in a train returning from a flashpoint town in northern India. “Pakistan”, he said, was responsible for terrorism in India. “Pakistan”, Modi repeated five times like an incantation, his fist clenched, his neck garlanded with marigolds. The cheering crowds were to be left in no doubt that only he, with his brand of Hindu right-wing populism, could stand between them and the external threat. The guilt-by-association at the death of so many Muslims earlier in the year in Gujarat, a state which borders Pakistan, was to be rechannelled into victimhood and vulnerability. From there came a process of expiation and, for Modi, electoral victory.

A full decade on, cleared by Indian courts of involvement in the Gujarat bloodshed, his image rehabilitated at least for some as a leader who can deliver good governance in India, Modi faces a new state election in Gujarat at the end of this year in which Pakistan will again play a role. It will be far less than before – India has moved on from the tensions of 2001 and 2002 when it came close to war with Pakistan over a December attack on its parliament. But the fact that Pakistan will play any role at all in the Gujarat campaign is testament to the peculiar intimacy of India-Pakistan relations, and with it, the tangled web of domestic politics that will define how far and how fast the two countries can go in improving ties.

The large cracks in fortress Kabul

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Arrive in Kabul and you know you are in a war zone, despite the heaving traffic on its crumbling roads. Whole streets are blocked off by concertina wire and sandbags, while a  zig-zag series of  blast walls are designed to stop or at least slow down the suicide bomber.  Indeed, the walls seem to get higher and more neighbourhoods disappear behind this concrete curtain each time you go back. And yet insurgents have repeatedly breached the layer-upon-layer of security, as  happened in September when the vast U.S. embassy compound came under attack, and now on Sunday when the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan diplomatic district was again targeted along with parliament.

The one feature common to the multiple attacks on Sunday and the daring September operation was that the attackers sneaked into half-finished or empty buildings, took positions half-way up the building and were able to hold off an armada of helicopters and Special Operations forces for up to 20 hours.   Kabul has been in the  midst of a construction boom that has slowed only recently as the Western pullout looms in 2014. The result is that you have a number of these high rise buildings in the centre of town which offer vantage views of the city – especially the sealed-off parts where the diplomatic and political elite live in virtual bunkers,  and which an ordinary Afghan can hardly ever see, much less gain access to.  From the reports so far, the attackers didn’t have to do much to get into these lightly guarded blocks, many of them just empty shells.  Once in, it was easy to hide behind a concrete pillar on a sixth-floor landing and fire rocket propelled grenades at the western installations below while holding off  the choppers.  The question is why are these buildings left unguarded even after the U.S. embassy was attacked from another one in the vicinity last September. What about the measures that were set in place to monitor such high-rises?

Tragedies don’t end wars, even in Siachen

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One of the most frequently cited misconceptions about the Siachen war – where 135 Pakistani soldiers and civilian staff were buried by an avalanche this weekend – is that it is somehow contained to a relatively small area, as though it were a mountain version of a 19th century battlefield.  The Indian and Pakistani troops, we are told in an oft-used and incorrect phrase, are “deployed on the Siachen Glacier at elevations as high as 22,000 feet.” From there, it becomes a relatively easy step to say, as many are saying after the tragedy, that India and Pakistan should end their futile conflict on the world’s highest battlefield. The argument has gathered momentum with a successful private-turned-state visit by President Asif Ali Zardari to India, generating expectations that Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will in turn visit Pakistan this year.

Continue down this track and you overlap with another frequently made argument - that a meaningful and important agreement must be ready to be signed in order to give substance to Singh’s trip. Enter a deal on Siachen, where India and Pakistan have competed over an uninhabitable wasteland of snow and ice high in the Karakoram mountains since 1984. Such an agreement, so the argument goes, would act as a major confidence building measure, building the momentum to reach a settlement of the festering Kashmir dispute and lasting peace between India and Pakistan.

From Afghanistan, the countdown to 2014

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The dusty streets of Kabul are choked with traffic, restaurants selling American fast food are bustling and there is a crowd of students and parents outside a girls’ school in the centre of town trying to slip through the shuttered gates at the start of the school year.

Returning to Kabul for the first time since December, there was no sense that the mood on the ground had changed significantly. But I couldn’t help wondering how all this might change once foreign troops who have propped up the Afghan state for more than a decade leave in 2014. There is talk of a return to chaos and civil war, although admittedly you hear more of those grim warnings abroad and in the foreign circles of  Kabul than from the people themselves who will be in the middle of it.

America, Afghanistan and the prisoners they hold

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As in any conflict, the prisoners that the players in Afghanistan hold are a key part of their political and military strategy as they head into 2014. For the United States, the more Taliban fighters or even potential Taliban are kept off the battlefield, the better it is. For years it has been running a regime of administrative detentions under which it can hold not only suspected combatants but even people it thinks could be a potential threat for an indefinite period.

For the Taliban, getting its commanders out has been a top priority and indeed its officials say securing the release of  some of them held in Guantanamo is the starting point of the talks that it has had with the United States for more than a year now.  A former frontline commander and cousin of the Taliban’s main negotiator in the talks with the United States told me in an interview that the Taliban would resume the negotiations only when the United States carried out its promise to release five senior Taliban figures held in the U.S. military prison in Cuba.  A prison committee is ready with the names of more comrades that it wants freed.

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