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It takes two to tango

It is time to shun the cold-war mindset and to take bold and pragmatic decisions in favour of the 1.4 billion people on both sides of the border

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times ,April 08, 2011

Before looking at the future of the current thaw, let us rewind to the tumultuous year of 1999. In February that year, Atal Behari Vajpayee became the first Indian prime minister to cross Wahga border on board a bus and eventually visit the Minar-e-Pakistan as a great gesture of recognition of the Muslim state. Within five months of that historic visit, he received probably the biggest snub when his forces found out that Pakistan Army and militants had intruded into the Indian-controlled Kashmiri territory and occupied several strategic peaks. The ensuing summer was hot and ended with humiliation for Pakistan when prime minister Nawaz Sharif had to rush to Washington and sign a deal virtually dictated by New Delhi. Six months later, the Indians endured another blow. This time, militants hijacked the flight 814 from Nepal and eventually landed it in Kandahar. On December 30th, Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh flew into Kandahar with Omar Saeed Sheikh, Maulana Masood Azhar and Mushtaq Zargar for their release in return for some 250 Indian passengers. “We will never surrender to terrorists,” an agitated and upset Singh told media after handing over four Kashmiri militants to Taliban foreign minister Abdul Wakeel Muttawakil.

Within ten months, Pakistani military and militants had delivered two serious blows to the Indian ego, and that became the basis for the Indo-US strategic dialogue on terrorism, with counter-terrorism cooperation being the key component.

“We will absorb what you have done to us,” Vivek Katju, the chief negotiator of the Indian team told me outside the Kandahar airport terminal on December 31st, pointing to the aircraft, which was being readied for the flight back. “But you will not be able to absorb what we might do to you.” His words clearly implied his belief that Pakistani agencies were behind the aircraft hijacking. The rest is open to imagination.

It took the Indian leadership about four years to recover from the insult at Kandahar hijacking and resume contacts with Pakistan. Again it was premier Vajpayee who came to Islamabad and went back with the January 6th, 2004 Islamabad Declaration, in which Pakistan committed not to allow its soil for anti-India terror activities. But the successor to LeT, Jamaatud Dawa, continued to thrive, and is functional even today.

Then came the thunderbolt; the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, which piled agony and anguish on India; if Kargil had injected a new wave of nationalism across India, the Mumbai attacks united them in their condemnation of Pakistan because of the ‘ISI links’ with the attackers.

But, after about two years of sabre-rattling, refusal to resume talks and an international campaign to have Pakistan punished, the Indian leadership has returned to talks, which suggests pragmatism has replaced the jingoism and reticence of the past few years.

Now let us see how Kargil and Kandahar hijacking shaped the Indian opinion. Katju went on to lead the Indian diplomatic offensive as his country’s ambassador to Afghanistan, and reportedly built a vast network of human assets in that country. Interestingly, some aides of Baitullah Mehsud (the TTP founder) themselves spoke about the ‘possible Indian involvement with the TTP’ when about thirty-odd journalists travelled to South Waziristan in May 2008 for a meeting with Mehsud. “The Ameer (Baitullah) told us he declined an offer of support from India when his talks for a peace deal in South Waziristan with the Pakistan authorities hit snags,” one of the journalists, requesting anonymity, quoted a masked Mehsud fighter as saying.

The offer, said the militant, came in March, when his leaders were in talks for the release of Tariq Azizuddin, the Pakistani ambassador to Kabul. “Baitullah mentioned this to the captive ambassador as well,” the TTP fighter told the journalist.

Most Pakistanis civilian and military alike believe that, in a tit-for-tat response to the Pakistani support to the Kashmiri militants, the LeT and the Jaish-e-Muhammad, India, through its diplomats and agencies, has helped instigate violence in FATA, KPK and Balochistan through outfits such as TTP.

It makes perfect sense; if Pakistan stoked trouble in India, aiding Sikh and Kashmiri militants in the 1980s, why shouldn’t the Indian establishment respond when it could. For most of the Indians, Pakistan Army and the ISI remain the chief villains.

Remember the words of Katju and look at the following instructive Plan of Action that about a dozen Indian stalwarts proposed drew at the end of a discussion on how to deal with Pakistan. The weekly India Today’ (January 19, 2009) had invited a panel of retired military, intelligence and civilian officials.

“There are lessons that India should learn from the 1971 conflict that was a result of careful strategy and planning. What the current situation calls for is a similar massive effort with a clear end goal in sight. If the 1971 objective was to dismember Pakistan, then the 2009 game plan should be to neutralise Pakistan so that it can no longer pose a threat to India,” wrote the paper.

“We must exploit the divisions within Pakistan and expose its weaknesses in Balochistan, the FATA and POK; Drive a wedge between the army and the Jihadis; also win over the moderate democratic forces.

“We need to build covert capabilities in Pakistan and mount a psychological war. We should not shy away from political destabilisation and inflicting economic damage to Pakistan. The time has come for us to say that Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan is disputed.”

Following the attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001, most Indian leaders had begun talking of “a right to pre-emptive strikes” if “acts of militant violence in this country are traced to, or even suspected to originate in, Pakistan and its intelligence agencies”. (External Affairs minister Yashwant Sinha, April 6/7, 2003 - PTI).

“…. the role of the army in Pakistan is a role that we have watched over a period of five decades, as long as the Pakistan Army continues to play that role, it will be very difficult for any dispensation in Pakistan to come to an understanding with India and to that extent it is difficult for India to reach an understanding with Pakistan,” Sinha told ITV’s `Court Martial’ programme.

Then followed George Fernandez, the Defence minister, supported by Richard Boucher, the former US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, who suggested the ISI be disbanded and Pakistan Army be subjected to surgical reforms (both made these statements in March and September 2007).

It is indeed a long litany of mutual accusations, suspicions, and intelligence turf wars, rooted in the Indian conviction (that echoes out of Washington as well) that the Pakistani military establishment is rogue, supports non-state actors such as LeT and other Taliban, and thus responsible for violence in India as well as Afghanistan. The Indian leadership spares no opportunity in reiterating these views, while pretending absolute ignorance about what their intelligence outfits might be doing to teach Pakistan a lesson (Keep in mind Katju and the India Today panel of experts).

This brings us to some conclusions; both security establishments are busy in mutual turf wars through proxies. While Pakistan’s proxies are known, those of India are not. One can only make a calculated guess about them because the brutal violence that the TTP and others have inflicted on Pakistan – killing and maiming women and children besides attacking security forces – clearly is not something for Islamic Sharia. It is certainly meant to damage Pakistan socially, politically and economically. And it has been successful thus far.

The resumption of dialogue is certainly a welcome move forward, and would provide Pakistan with a much-needed breather from its multiple-crisis, but for the sake of a long-term, friction-free engagement, both security establishments, as well as the Afghan intelligence, shall have to come clean on their activities in their respective territories. Without removing mistrust and without permanently disowning proxies neither Pakistan nor India should expect any smooth sailing. It is time to shun the cold-war mindset and to take bold and pragmatic decisions in favour of the 1.4 billion people on both sides of the border.

The cricket diplomacy has changed the ambience and optics. Resumption of the dialogue has underlined the realisation that two neighbours cannot stay aloof. But for a durable and constructive engagement, the semantics of the relationship must change. And that will come only when the security establishments on both sides agree that turf wars are not the way forward.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk