Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
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.
Moreover, the Indian prime minister is personally committed to pursuing peace in the time he has left before a national election due by 2014. And while last year he was isolated even within his own party in his enthusiasm for peace - an idea that still lingers in some quarters - his initiative appears to enjoy the support of powerful Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. Outlook magazine, writing about his cricket diplomacy, noted that Singh was flanked by Gandhi and her son and prime-minister- in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi, when he welcomed Gilani on his first official visit to India.
The Pakistan Army, which dominates foreign and security policy in Pakistan, has also been slowly reassessing its approach to Islamist militants it once nurtured for use against India as they slip increasingly out of its control. How far that reassessment goes is open to debate; but few doubt that Gilani would have accepted Singh’s invitation to India to explore peace talks had this not been endorsed by the army.
It was so long in the making, so utterly predictable, that the news that Pakistan and India are now arguing over water carries with it the dull ache of inevitability.
When I was living in Delhi, which I left in 2004, a few analysts were already warning that the next war between Pakistan and India would be over water, rather than over Kashmir. The mountain glaciers which fed the rivers which are the lifeline of both countries were melting, they said, and sooner or later India and Pakistan would blame each other for climate change. I did not take it that seriously at the time. Not even after seeing first hand how far the Siachen glacier – the world’s longest glacier – had receded.
India and Pakistan aren’t always bickering, including over Kashmir, the dispute that has defined their relationship over more than six decades. Away from the public eye, top and trusted envoys from the two countries have at various times sat down and wrestled with the problem, going beyond stated positions in the public and even teasing out the contours of a deal. In the end of course, someone’s nerve failed, or something else happened and the deal was off.
Beginning 2004 and up until November 2007 India and Pakistan were embarked on a similar course and very nearly came to an agreement on Kashmir, says investigative journalist Steve Coll in an article for the New Yorker. Special envoys from the two countries met in secret in hotels in London, Bangkok and London to lay out a solution and after three years they were ready with the broad outline of a settlement that would have de-militarised Kashmir.
There is a strange dichotomy in Delhi at the moment. If you read the headlines or watch the news on television, India and Pakistan appear headed for confrontation – what form, what shape is obviously hard to tell but the rhetoric is getting more and more menacing each day.
Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani promised a matching response ‘within minutes” were the Indians to carry out precision strikes against camps of militants inside Pakistan, whom it blames for the Mumbai attacks.
India and Pakistan will open a trade link across divided Kashmir for the first time in six decades on Tuesday, aiming to ease tensions by creating soft borders in the disputed region. The move looks to be fairly tentative; lorries will be allowed across the military ceasefire line only once a week, carrying a limited list of goods, and will be expected to unload some 10 km to 15 km beyond the Line of Control which separates the Indian and Pakistani-held parts of the region. But it has potentially more than symbolic significance, particularly if it helps to open up the isolated Kashmir Valley — at the heart of the separatist revolt – to the outside world.
The step, which would have been unthinkable before a ceasefire on the Line of Control in late 2003, is also meant to build trust between India and Pakistan. The region’s governor, N.N. Vohra, described it as an important milestone in India-Pakistan relations. But as is so often the case in India-Pakistan relations, there have been some unexpected counter-currents recently, acting as a powerful undertow against attempts to improve the two countries’ approach to Kashmir.
One of the more recurrent themes in U.S. political punditry these days is the need to nudge India and Pakistan towards peace. The theory is that this would bolster the new civilian government in Islamabad by encouraging trade and economic development, reduce a rivalry that threatens regional stability, including in Afghanistan, and limit the role of the Pakistan Army, whose traditional dominance has been fuelled by a perceived threat from India.
So what are the chances of progress? (assuming the latest bombings just being reported in Delhi do not trigger a new downwards spiral)
At first glance, it looks unlikely. The two countries have more or less managed to hold to a ceasefire agreed at the end of 2003 on both the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir and on Siachen, and they have a slow-moving peace process which at least has India and Pakistan talking rather than fighting each other. India is far too interested in winning itself superpower status to let itself be distracted by some embarrassing fighting on its border. And Pakistan has enough problems dealing with al Qaeda and the Taliban on its western border with Afghanistan, without having to cope with trouble on its eastern border with India as well.
The People’s Daily does not run editorials very often about Pakistan and India, so when it does, I pay attention. It just published an op-ed about the latest talks between India and Pakistan on counter-terrorism. The talks themselves appeared to yield little in actual results. Yet according to the People’s Daily, it was an “important step towards mutual political trust”.
“The efforts for peace once again prove that dialogue is the sole path to resolving differences between countries,” it says. “India and Pakistan’s steps on this road are not big yet; but they are moving, in a positive direction.”
While living in Delhi after 9/11, and in particular after India and Pakistan nearly went to war over an attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001, one of the questions that cropped up frequently was about how much the Pakistan army had been permeated by hardline Islamists. In other words, how much sympathy did the army feel for al Qaeda and Taliban militants that then General Pervez Musharraf had pledged to fight?
Several years later, while researching a book on the Siachen war, I had occasion to travel with the Pakistan army and assess the Islamist question up close. My impression was that the Pakistan army was not driven by religious fanaticism. Yes, it exhorted its soldiers to embrace “shaheed”, or martyrdom, in the name of Allah. But it was otherwise remarkably similar to the Indian army. Both relied on a blend of nationalism and loyalty to their fellow men in the same unit; both found recruits in the mountains and rural villages who could be inculcated with a spirit of “ours not to reason why”; both counted on officers to lead from the front. Men did not go into battle dreaming of death. An officer who thinks only of killing himself is of little use to a professional army, which needs men who are above all sane, who can remain focused and objective, who know the difference between suicide and getting killed.