Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
With so much noise around these days in the relationship between India and Pakistan it is hard to make out a clear trend. Politicians and national media in both countries have reverted to trading accusations, whether it be about their nuclear arsenals, Pakistani action against Islamist militants blamed for last year’s Mumbai attacks or alleged violations of a ceasefire on the Line of Control dividing Kashmir. Scan the headlines on a Google news search on India and Pakistan and you get the impression of a relationship fraught beyond repair.
Does that mean that attempts to find a way back into peace talks broken off after the Mumbai attacks are going nowhere? Not necessarily. In the past the background noise of angry rhetoric has usually obscured real progress behind the scenes, and this time around may be no exception.
The Hindu newspaper reported on Sept 1 that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may meet either the president or prime minister of Pakistan on the sidelines of a Commonwealth summit in Trinidad in November. It said the Indian government was already working out what strategy to adopt to make any meeting meaningful, while also pushing Pakistan to take more action against Pakistan-based militant groups in order to prevent another Mumbai-style attack.
There is no confirmation of that Trinidad meeting, and nor is there likely to be for some time, but The Hindu in recent months has proved to be well informed about the prime minister’s approach to Pakistan. Singh himself laid out his plans in a speech in parliament in July in which he promised a “step by step” approach to dialogue – effectively meaning that India would talk to Pakistan while refusing for now to reopen a formal peace process broken off after the Mumbai attacks.
Who is Pakistan’s biggest threat? Not the Taliban, not even India, but the United States, according to an overwhelming majority of Pakistanis surveyed in a poll just out.
On the eve of the 62nd anniversary of Pakistan’s creation, the Gallup Pakistan poll offers a window into the mind of a troubled, victimised nation. And it surely must make for some equally uncomfortable reading in the United States, led at this time by a president who has sought to reach out to the Muslim world and distance himself from the foreign policy adventurism of his predecessor.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Having asked last month whether Pakistan was in a position to take on the Laskhar-e-Taiba, an obvious follow-up question was to try to assess how much of a threat the militant group blamed for last year’s attacks on Mumbai represents to the West and to India.
According to analysts who track the LeT closely, the Pakistan-based militant group is not the new al Qaeda. It is still very much focused on Kashmir and India, while its single-issue agenda along with the humanitarian work carried out by its Jamaat-ud-Dawa charitable wing mean it is more comparable to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas than to al Qaeda.
India’s South Asia Intelligence Review (SAIR) has just produced a detailed assessment on the stability of Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province and its conclusions are unsettling.
The base for militants including anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed along with the sectarian Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Punjab has largely escaped the attention given to the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where the Pakistan Army is fighting the Taliban. As a result a spate of bomb attacks in Punjab tends to be viewed, rightly or wrongly, as a spillover from the fighting in NWFP and FATA, with little attention given to the situation inside the province.