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Correcting the focus

By Imtiaz Gul

Daily DAWN May 18, 2009

ALMOST a dozen countries, the US, Canada, Great Britain and Italy among them — have appointed special envoys to advise on how to steer Pakistan out of the woods. The overriding objective is to protect Pakistan against radical gangs including those inspired by Al Qaeda or Mulla Omar. They want Pakistan’s security establishment to review its threat perception, as enunciated by President Barack Obama.

It was therefore no coincidence that ISI chief Gen Shuja Pasha and several other important members of the Pakistani security apparatus were present during President Asif Ali Zardari’s recent Washington visit, where US officials try to nudge their civilian and military guests into calibrating their threat perception in a new direction — shifting from the east to the west.

Such advice is logical. But the real issue at hand is whether the Pakistani security apparatus can respond to this situation as desired by its foreign friends.

The dilemma that Pakistan’s security establishment currently confronts essentially revolves around the “perennial threat from the east”. Its enemy number one remains India which maintains half of its strike corps either along the Line of Control, the international border or close to it. Hence the bulk of Pakistani armed forces also remain deployed on this side of the border. For the army, religious radicalism currently stoking unrest in northern Pakistan does not con stitute a medium- or long-term threat. The mortal risk comes from the east (India) and not from the west or northwest. Hence the establishment’s preoccupation with India as enemy number one.

A string of statements by Obama and British premier Gordon Brown shows the two leaders look at the situation altogether differently; for them the Al Qaeda-inspired Talibanisation poses a mortal threat not only to Pakistan but also to the rest of world.

What they overlook is that Indian superiority — whether in conventional armament or international stature as the largest emerging economy and the largest democracy — shapes the Pakistani establishment’s threat perception.

The issue came up during a roundtable discussion involving people such as Stephen P. Cohen and C. Christine Fair of Rand Corporation in March. It was suggested that it would be “unfair to dismiss the notion that Pakistan’s apprehensions about Afghanistan stem in part from its security competition with India”.

Based on his discussions with Indian officials in Afghanistan and Zahedan, Iran, Fair insisted that India ran operations from its mission in Mazar-i-Sharif and is likely doing so from the other consulates it has reopened in Jalalabad and Kandahar along the border.

“Indian officials have told me privately that they are pumping money into Balochistan. Kabul has encouraged India to engage in provocative activities such as using the Border Roads Organisation to build sensitive parts of the Ring Road and use the IndoTibetan police force for security. It is also building schools on a sensitive part of the border in Kunar — across from Bajaur. Kabul’s motivations for encouraging these activities are as obvious as India’s interest in engaging in them.” India’s more than $1bn reconstruction and economic aid to Afghanistan since the January 2002 Tokyo conference, its almost free satellite services for Afghan telecommunication and the information apparatus as well as Indo-Afghan cooperation in areas such as intelligence and special policing raise apprehensions in Pakistan.

The reason for these apprehensions lies in that if in the past Pakistan had similar links with Indian Punjab (Khalistan) and Kashmir, then it is logical for India to pay back. And if the Pakistani establishment remains seized with this “payback by Indian intelligence agencies”, it would try to hang on to some of the militant groups it considers useful for its objectives. The cost of this nexus to the image and economy of the country has far outweighed the benefits, with the result that Pakistan is being viewed as a volatile and fragile state.

Important people within the security establishment might per ceive the militants’ advances and projection of power as “manageable,” and view the eastern border as the biggest threat where India concentrates its tanks, fighter aircraft and huge number of forces in areas facing Pakistan.

Regardless of the Indian military posturing, the current turmoil makes it imperative for the Pakistani military to redefine the threat perception. It has to give up for good on the militants as a possible foreign policy option. Both the government and the military must also genuinely embrace the idea of zero tolerance for anti-state jihadists and take them on as a strategic existential threat, as enemies of modernity and democracy.

As a quid pro quo, the club of special envoys needs to reassure Pakistan about its external security by “neutralising” the threat from the east. This requires the US to display greater transparency and fairness in its diplomatic exchanges with Pakistan. It must also allay Pakistani fears of an encirclement by the IndoAfghan-American alliance. Unless Washington can persuade Islamabad that US assistance to India is not a direct threat to Pakistan’s strategic security and that it would stand by it in case of any ingress by India, it would be very difficult to get an India-centric Pakistani establishment to counter the long-term strategic threat i.e. the Al Qaeda-led radicalisation that may soon become unmanageable.

The writer is head of the Centre for Research and Security Studies. Email: imtiaz@crss.pk