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Moving Forward With Pakistan

There is hope among some in India that Foreign Secretary Ms. Nirupama Rao’s June 24 visit to Islamabad would set the stage to move forward with bilateral relations. In an article in a national daily, Ms. Rao laid out a balanced view willing to explore all angles with even new thinking to get out of the trough of deep distrust between the two sides.

The Foreign Secretary’s visit will be followed immediately by a visit by Home Minister Mr. P.C. Chidambaram, and then by Foreign Minister Mr. S.M. Krishna on July 26. Three successive Indian visits suggest a consensus at the highest level of the government to reach out to Pakistan, the maximum possible under the circumstances.

Normally, it would be expected of Pakistan to respond similarly to create a conducive atmosphere for the interactions. Unfortunately, true to practice, Islamabad decided to use pressure tactics to gain the initiative.

A review of three recent independent developments may indicate issues on which Pakistan would likely impress in the coming exchanges. On June 13, Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD) founder leader Hafiz Saeed hectored against alleged co-operation between the Mossad and India focus to crush the “liberation” struggle in Kashmir. Flags of India, USA and Israel were laid on the street for people to walk over. The gathering was attended by former ISI Chief Hamid Gul, who still has substantial influence among the terrorism supporters in the ISI. Other extreme right religious leaders were also in attendance.

Hafiz Saeed’s rally was held with the prior permission of authorities, and clearly meant to rile India. It is not that the Pakistani authorities do not have any control over the JUD leader whom India holds as the primary culprit of “26/11” Mumbai terrorist attack. Under Indian pressure, Hafiz Saeed’s public speeches were restricted in the recent past. But this time, the intention was to make the point on Kashmir again, especially putting it in terms of demands of the people of Pakistan.

In another development Pak Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned India against expanding its role and presence in Afghanistan. Speaking to Reuters (June 09), Qureshi said Pakistan can assist Afghanistan more than India to face security challenges there, and India’s presence in Afghanistan beyond need will not be reasonable.

Pakistan has well known concerns about India’s welcome especially among the Afghan people. Instead of getting into Afghanistan militarily, it was a very wise decision from New Delhi to concentrate on much needed medical assistance, infrastructure construction and other engagements that even give employment to some people in the country.

India’s constructive role in Afghanistan now having crossed more than one billion Dollars, is compared to Pakistan’s role in the country which has been largely supporting the Taliban and trying to establish a puppet government in Kabul.

Pakistan’s “all weather friend” China’s role in Afghanistan, is also coming up for discussions. It is well known that China has worked with the earlier Taliban regime in Kabul through Pakistan, but mainly engaged in commercial areas. Even now, the situation exists and the Pakistani army keeps Bejing well briefed on Afghanistan. In the current phase, China’s interest remains in commercial benefits rather than humanitarian or development activities. A Chinese state owned company has bought rights to the Aynak copper mines in Afghanistan, one of the largest in the world, by reportedly paying $30 million bribe to the Minister for Mines. China has not denied the report.

Recently, discussing the Karachi riots with the press, Interior Minister Reheman Malik said that the main reason for the riots was the involvement of an outside actor. There is no prize for guessing that Malik pointed his finger at India.

Malik’s penchant for blaming all ills of Pakistan on India is well known. Some of the Pakistani newspapers have challenged him to show evidence. Nevertheless, Malik goes on relentlessly.

Internal security is Malik’s charter and he has to find excuses to explain the unceasing terrorist attacks. There is more than a suspicion that Malik works with the ISI. He has plenty of skeletons in his cupboard, and there are questions relating to his role in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Except for a small group of initiated people in Pakistan, a large majority believe what Malik says about India. Backed by television talk shows and sections of the print media most of the population is brain washed to see India as the ogre.

Having created this atmosphere, it becomes easy for the Pakistani leaders to take up charges like “India sponsored militancy” in Pakistan, in talks. Like at Sham-al-Sheik, the Pakistani charge will resurface in future talks also.

Given these developments which are only examples, India will have to run an extended steeple chase to even come to the beginning of the steps forward. But perseverance and patience is the need of the moment.

The problem, however, is not localized here. Whether we like to admit it or not, the USA looms large in the background, putting pressure on both India and Pakistan but with periodic conflicting positions. Among major powers, the USA is, perhaps, the least educated on this entire region in terms of politics, culture, religious, tribal and caste issues. Neither America nor Western Europe have the kind of complex issues this region has, and all these complexities and contradictions constitute the politics here.

For Pakistan, especially its military and the ISI, the highest priority remains India as an eternal threat ideologically, and Kashmir and Afghanistan, the two wings keeping the main ideology flying.

For the USA, handing over Afghanistan to the Afghan government and the Afghan National Army (ANA) and getting out is the main priority. But this is easier said than done. Getting out of Afghanistan starting July 2011 is becoming an elusive target. In a recent US Senate hearing Senator John McCain observed that the key signals coming out of there were indicating a mounting crisis.

After some “yes” and “No”, the US seem to be going along with Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s plan to include those Taliban who accept his scheme of things in a larger inclusive government. Pakistan has welcomed the idea since their surrogates, the Taliban, the Haqqani clique and some others can get into the Afghan administration legally. But Islamabad sees Karzai as India’s friend and does not trust him. And Karzai is unlikely to walk his talk as it is.

Therefore, will the USA withdraw eventually and see a return of the Taliban? That will be disastrous for Afghanistan, but the USA is known for doing worse.

US statements on India’s role in Afghanistan is confusing, to say the least. While the Under Secretary of State for South and Central Asia recently in a seminar declared that India’s continued involvement in Afghanistan was a key part of that country’s success, the US Commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal holds India’s influence in Afghanistan as likely to encourage Pakistani counter measures. What is the truth?

On the one hand some US officials give Pakistan evidence of ISI-Taliban nexus and the Lashkar-e-Toiba’s (LETs) increased involvement in Afghanistan, on the other they also have been trying to explain that the ISI was collecting intelligence on Taliban through such contacts.

US actions and behavior over the last two years have convinced the Pakistani army and the ISI that Washington has become their captive in Afghanistan, and the US needs them not only to prosecute their war against terrorism but even to get out of Afghanistan. Given this situation, it will not be surprising if Pakistan-sponsored terrorists step up attacks on Indian interests and personnel in Afghanistan. They know that in any case Washington will urge India to refrain from any direct action.

India must be ready that in the forthcoming talks with Pakistan, it may face a more confident and more emphatic Pakistan. Any softness from the Indian side both on bilateral issues or Afghanistan will be self-defeating.

(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy is an eminent analyst based in New Delhi.E

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