By Swapan Dasgupta
A week after the 9/11 attacks, when an angry United States was planning fierce retribution against Osama bin Laden and his Taliban hosts, General Pervez Musharraf made a televised speech on the choices facing Pakistan. In a rambling address, Musharraf drew inspiration from the early history of Islam. The Prophet, he reminded viewers, had negotiated the Treaty of Hudaibiya with the Quraish of Mecca. The truce may have seemed a climbdown and an admission of weakness but it offered the army of Islam the elbow room to spread the faith throughout the Arabian Peninsula. It was an invigorated Islam that finally regained Mecca.
The implication was obvious: confronted by a superpower that bluntly demanded Pakistan should choose between Us and Them, Musharraf was effecting a tactical retreat. To Musharraf, the U-turn in Afghanistan didn't signal any strategic shift or emotional conversion; it suggested dissimulation based on expediency—the al taqiyya or deception that is theologically sanctioned for the larger good of the faith.
With the encounter in Abbottabad ending an exhaustive manhunt, there must be functionaries in Washington DC who regret not being more attentive to the fine print of Musharraf's September 2001 speech. It is not that the US and its allies weren't aware of Pakistan's penchant for "looking both ways" and facilitating Taliban factions. But its duplicity was sought to be rationalised as wariness of a regime in Kabul that valued India. As the relationship with President Hamid Karzai began souring, it suited western strategists to imagine that Pakistan's shenanigans were facets of a new Indo-Pak proxy war. With war weariness engulfing the public mood in both the US and Britain, 'pragmatism' deemed that Pakistan should have a major say in determining a peace settlement that included the Taliban—as distinct from the Al Qaeda. In a speech in February this year, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton even deemed that laying down of arms and acceptance of the Afghan Constitution were no longer prerequisites for dialogue with the Taliban.
Until the May 2 "firefight" spoiled the party, Pakistan believed it was on the cusp of a historic victory. With President Barack Obama having announced a phased withdrawal of US forces from July, Islamabad felt it was just a matter of time before it regained its "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. Its army chief General Kayani was audacious enough to suggest to Karzai last month that his cooperation in a settlement that accommodated the Taliban could even be underwritten by China—a country that has acquired substantial interests in the mineral wealth of Afghanistan.
Of course, it was not all smooth sailing. Pakistan was worried that the Afghan conflict and its quiet encouragement of jihad had triggered a blowback. Some of the Islamist groups nurtured by the ISI to inflict pain on India had developed autonomous agendas and had even begun targeting the Pakistan military. This threat was partially offset by an unexpected bonanza: India's retreat from its post-26/11 position of no talks until Pakistan completely disavowed terrorism. What is now called the "Mohali spirit" was also premised on the convoluted rationale that the process of normalisation would bolster Pakistan's fledgling democracy. However, there is no evidence to suggest that the Pakistani cantonments were worried by this wishful calculation. To them, India's talks with "useful idiots" of the civilian government merely helped Pakistan look more respectable. It was also a great relief to the western powers that valued both countries: India for business and Pakistan for facilitating its exit from Afghanistan.
Abbottabad has nullified this script. It was one thing for Pakistan to be harbouring Mullah Omar in Quetta, but Osama was another matter altogether. Pakistan's perfidy hasn't merely made the US angry; it has been shown to be a sucker. In normal circumstances, India should have been jubilant and telling the world 'we told you so'—a sentiment echoed by the media and society. Tragically, the latest confirmation of Pakistan's habitually duplicitous conduct has left Singh strangely unmoved. He has instead reaffirmed his faith in Pakistan's innate goodness—a gesture of monumental magnanimity that is prone to being misconstrued.
India's wimpish official response to Pakistan's double-dealing isn't likely to generate oodles of gratitude. A beleaguered Pakistan has reacted to its own embarrassment with a heady cocktail of victimhood, nationalism and anti-Americanism. Such an outburst can't be delinked from that country's pet hates. When it comes to India, Pakistan is often loath to even practice al taqiyya—so profound is its fear of India's skills of absorption. This may explain Islamabad's calculated over-reaction to notional threats of Indian special operations. For Pakistan, anti-Indianism is the national adhesive.
Pakistan is still unsure of the extent of Western retribution over its sanctuary to Osama. It is banking on a temporary frostiness that will dissipate in the face of the imminent departure from Afghanistan. Pakistan has reposed faith in the two aces it has up its sleeve: its nuclear assets and its firm alliance with China. The West, it believes, will bark but won't dare bite.
In the normal course, India would have been an additional pressure point on Pakistan. Having abandoned that option, India has made itself redundant in the Great Game. Singh may yet get to visit his native village in Pakistan. In craving for that privilege, he may also secure India's banishment from Afghanistan and the onward march of China in South Asia.