By Swapan Dasgupta
Every clever politician is only too aware that a clever diversion is a wonderful way to shift attention from the issue at hand. Earlier this week, on his first visit to Pakistan after assuming office, British Prime Minister David Cameron craftily exploited the huge reservoir of 'anti-imperialist' sentiment in the subcontinent. Speaking to students of the Islamabad Institute of Technology, no relation to the IITs across the border, he was asked what role the United Kingdom should play in resolving the Indo-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir. "I don't want to insert Britain into some leading role", he replied, "As with so many of the problems of the world, we are responsible for their creation in the first place."
Predictably, Cameron's reply was greeted by generous applause by young Pakistanis who, like young Indians, have been brought up to believe that regional conflicts—whether in Palestine, Tibet or along the Durand Line—are a legacy of perfidious Albion. Such as assertion may or may not stand historical scrutiny. Indeed, within the UK, Cameron's "politics of apology" has been trashed by both the Right and the Left.
Unless I am horribly mistaken, the shelf life of this abstruse discussion on imperial responsibility is unlikely to last for more than a day. That is enough time for Cameron to sign a meaningless agreement for "enhanced strategic dialogue"—not 'partnership' mind you—and attend to the residual anger in Islamabad over his harsh assessment of contemporary Pakistan during his visit to India earlier this year. By blaming it all on long-forgotten ancestors, Cameron delivered the crucial part of his message: the UK isn't interested in getting its hands dirty in Kashmir.
Pakistan has routinely scoured the world trying to collect endorsements for some form of third party mediation to solve the Kashmir dispute. It is Islamabad's version of the India's hunt of testimonials for the elusive UN Security Council permanent seat. Cameron didn't oblige his hosts (unlike the earnest David Miliband who soured Indo-British ties with a monumentally tactless speech on Kashmir). He was content with a suitably clever one-liner.
This is not to suggest that Cameron's all-too-brief visit to Islamabad was a meaningless charm offensive aimed at enhancing the profile of his Cabinet colleague Baroness Syeda Warsi in Pakistan. Accompanying the British Prime Minister was an extremely high profile delegation comprising the chief of defence staff, the head of MI6 and the National Security Adviser. The details of what they discussed as part of the 'enhanced strategic dialogue' is unlikely to be made public but a few trends are discernible.
First, the importance of Pakistan to the UK is, of course, in relation to Afghanistan. But equally, Pakistan is of considerable relevance to the national security of the British mainland. Nearly half the terror plots targeting Britain are thought to originate in a Pakistan where jihad is the biggest growth industry. It is therefore in Britain's self-interest in both Afghanistan and at home to engage with Pakistan and secure the cooperation of its security establishment.
Secondly, it is increasingly apparent that neither the United States nor the UK has the stomach to secure a military defeat of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The growing distaste for President Hamid Karzai's regime—accused of being the fountainhead of both corruption and drugs trafficking—have led to a section of the British security establishment discovering virtues in the Taliban. It is being suggested that the Al Qaeda component of the Afghan Taliban are holed up in North and South Waziristan fighting the Pakistan army. The ones taking on the NATO-led forces in southern Afghanistan, on the other hand, are said to be freedom-loving, conservative Pushtuns with no appetite for global jihad.
Coming to terms with this "good" Taliban, not least to facilitate an early exit from Afghanistan, necessitates working through Pakistan's infamous ISI. Already, a Taliban front office is said to be functioning in Turkey and a more purposeful back office is set to be established in the United Arab Emirates. Taliban-friendly mullahs are discreetly making their appearance at talks and seminars organised by think tanks and academic institutions in the West.
Thirdly, for reasons that may be grounded in either fact or convenience, a section in Whitehall has concluded that the ISI has had a change of heart and is actively engaged in fighting the hardline Islamist terrorists—those responsible for the blasts and the suicide bombings inside Pakistan and plotting attacks in the West. Some members of the British strategic community also appear to hold the belief that a group such as the Lashkar-e-Tayyiba can be tamed, in the same way as the Provisional IRA was defanged in the 1990s, and transformed into non-violent Islamists. This assessment conflicts sharply with Cameron's own espousal of "muscular liberalism" as an alternative to extremism, both violent and non-violent. Whether this optimism stems from voyages of discovery undertaken by US and UK intelligence or is a piece of received wisdom from the ISI isn't known. What is evident though is a desire on the part of the ISI to ensure the LeT remains an 'approved' overground player.
Finally, a strategy of engagement with the ISI-approved roster of non-violent Islamism involves making demands on India. It is remarkable how in recent months the linking of Afghanistan with Kashmir has made a comeback. Although it is being said that this linkage is strictly 'non-official', it will come as no surprise if pressure is put on India to do its bit to make the Taliban re-conquest of Afghanistan as painless and non-confrontational as possible. Simultaneously, there will be attempts to ensure that India is more accommodating to Pakistan's aspirations on Kashmir. At an officially-sponsored seminar last week at King's College, London, a participant baldly stated that "India has to be generous—otherwise it faces another summer of discontent in Kashmir."
The Great Game, it would seem, never stopped—not even after Cameron recognised the role of yesterday's imperialists in leaving an awful mess for posterity to clean up.