By Swapan Dasgupta
Viewed from the perspective of India, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s latest peace overture to a recalcitrant Pakistan seems bewildering and a trifle misplaced. How, it is being legitimately asked, can you repose trust in a Pakistan that is unwilling to own up to its misdemeanours and, indeed, is content with the mollycoddling of extremist and terrorist forces? Just because Atal Bihari Vajpayee too was guilty of a similar misjudgement doesn’t necessarily justify its persistence.
Yet, it is important to realise that India’s desperate desire to give its difficult neighbour the benefit of doubt is not an isolated move prompted by some weakness of the national character. Pakistan, which was worsted after the 9/11 attacks and the Anglo-American ‘war on terror’, is on the verge of recovering lost ground and scoring a major foreign policy triumph. This is not because the Manmohan Singh regime is weak and supine. That is only a small part of the problem. The real advantage for Pakistan lies in the fact that an economically devastated West has lost the political resolve to persist with the war in Afghanistan. It is looking for ways to extricate itself from what is generally being regarded as a no-win situation. What India is doing is creating the conditions for an ignominious Anglo-American retreat from Afghanistan. Being nice to Pakistan is a part of India’s facilitation process.
The extent to which defeatism has overwhelmed the West is most evident in the hysterical British reaction to the death of 22 of its soldiers last month. The July toll may seem small by Indian standards — the Maoists have killed more policemen and para-military forces in Chhattisgarh in the same time frame — but in British eyes this is unacceptable. From the perspective of other European participants in the multi-national force it is even more so. The only German soldier who killed a Taliban insurgent had to be flown back home for trauma therapy and the legendary Luftwaffe has ceased all night operations because it is seen as too risky.
There was a naive belief in some European capitals that involvement in Afghanistan actually meant overseeing good works by social workers in the Provincial Reconstruction Teams. The soldiers, it was assumed, would keep a benign eye on things as earnest young do-gooders helped Afghans rebuild schools, practice gender equality and climb up the Human Development Index. When that romantic dream turned into a nightmare amid the harsh realities of Afghanistan, the inclination of European civil society has been to cut losses and run back home.
The Afghan war is without question an unpopular war. The Americans may want more boots on the ground and a few targeted operations, including the one with the menacing name Operation Panther’s Claw, but this is widely seen as a face-saving precursor to departure. Maybe the bases in Baghran and Kandahar may remain, but for all intents and purposes, the war on terror is drawing to a close without any sign of victory.
For Pakistan, this is fantastic news and it is doing its utmost to hasten the departure of the international forces. Having carefully helped the Taliban regroup after the debacle of 2001 and continue its low-intensity guerrilla war, Pakistan is now intent on projecting itself as the proverbial poacher-turned-gamekeeper. It has implored the West to outsource the pacification of Pushtuns to it. After all, no one is said to know the forbidding terrain around the Durand Line better than Pakistan. In return, Pakistan wants the West to create the conditions for its ‘approved’ intervention in Afghanistan.
Ideally, Pakistan has two demands. First, it wants the West to guarantee that the shift of military might from the eastern front with India to the western front will not involve India taking advantage of the situation. Second, Pakistan wants the West to realise that it would be difficult to manage the internal fallout of training its guns on the Taliban unless there is some ideological compensation, such as some recognition of Pakistan’s role in Kashmir. As of now, the West has merely impressed upon India the need to free Pakistani forces in the east so that it can join the main battle in the west. For India, this has meant lowering the temperature on Pakistan-sponsored terrorism directed against India. As of now, the West hasn’t really arm-twisted India on the Kashmir issue. But that is only a matter of time. New Delhi has already demonstrated its inclination to crawl when asked to bend.
The coming months are going to be crucial for Afghanistan. On the face of it, President Hamid Karzai seems set for a clear victory in next month’s presidential election. However, it is clear that both Pakistan and the so-called civil society groups in the West are betting on his ex-World Bank rival Ashraf Ghani as a wholesome alternative to Karzai. Ghani has the support of the anti-Karzai Pushtuns but lacks the incumbent’s ability to garner the votes of the minority communities linked to the erstwhile Northern Alliance.
The presidential election isn’t likely to be entirely free and fair. Given the troubled state of Afghanistan, it can hardly be so. Moreover, the democratic culture hasn’t really taken roots in Afghanistan. Any result that favours Karzai is likely to be strongly disputed by the Ghani camp and the scepticism is certain to be fuelled by both Pakistan and Western Governments anxious to leave Afghanistan to god and Pakistan. It is a possible man-made crisis over the election results that may well set the stage for Pakistan’s formal re-acquisition of its lost ‘strategic depth’.
By refusing to play hard ball in Egypt last month, Manmohan Singh thought he was trying to help the West get its act together in Pakistan. The consequences of his generosity may well be Pakistan’s victory in Afghanistan. The Indian Prime Minister deserves a Nishaan-e-Pakistan award.
Sunday Pioneer, August 2, 2009