Saturday, June 04, 2011

Line of engagement

By Swapan Dasgupta

For the past few months—even before the Abbottabad operation, the Mehran attack and the testimony of David Coleman Headley in a Chicago court—there has been mounting international concern over the state of Pakistan. The tendency of the Pakistan establishment to "look both ways" on terrorism was always a perennial source of worry. Former CIA officer Bruce Reidel's recently-published Deadly Embrace contains a succinct account of the two-timing proclivities of the Pakistan military, particularly the ISI, as seen through the eyes of US intelligence. But whereas in earlier years Islamabad's duplicity in Afghanistan was earlier sought to be explained and even wished away by its obsessive paranoia over India, today's most worries centre on the growing clout of militant Islamism in Pakistan and the growth of its nuclear arsenal. It is not merely the future of Afghanistan that is agitating the West (and, for that matter, India); a greater anxiety is over the future direction of Pakistan.

The extent to which jihadi anarchy, hitherto confined to the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (NWFP) and patches of Baluchistan adjoining Afghanistan, overwhelms the rest of the country and begins to affect the Pakistani state is prone to over-statement. In his eminently readable book Pakistan: A Hard Country, British academic Anatol Lieven has emphasised that Pakistan isn't likely to become a Talibanised Afghanistan in a hurry. His argument that the kinship and patronage networks, while breeding inefficiency and corruption, are also a conservative bulwark against radical Islamism is compelling.

Lieven also reassures the West that the Pakistani army remains a modernist bulwark against the jihadi. In his view, if the army has been less than effective in taking on the Pakistani Taliban, it is because the whole issue has got entangled with the wave of visceral anti-Americanism in Pakistan. This will dissipate once the US puts an end to drone attacks and departs from Afghanistan. Pakistan, Lieven argues, won't necessarily be an oasis of stability but it won't be a rogue state either. Once it recovers its strategic depth in Afghanistan and bids farewell to the NATO troops, it can get back to what it loves best—needling India. And that shouldn't concern the West.

On the face of it, Riedel and Lieven represent the two polarities in the West's concerns over Pakistan—one has underlined the real dangers of an Islamist Pakistan-Afghanistan and the other has rubbished that likelihood. But the two assessments converge on one point: India's obligation in stabilising Pakistan.

In defining the present state of India-Pakistan bilateral relations, the buzzword is "engagement". From strategists in the West to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, everyone seems to be agreed that it is India's responsibility to be constantly engaged with Pakistan. As opposed to the year or so after the 26/11 attack when India insisted that Pakistan demonstrate its commitment to dismantling the infrastructure of terror directed against India—in plain language it meant cracking down hard against the LeT and groups such as the Jaish-e-Mohammed—the months since the SAARC summit in Thimphu has seen New Delhi stressing the importance of uninterrupted engagement. Even when Prime Minister Singh articulated his conviction that "Pakistan's leadership must now wake up to the reality and recognise that the terror machine they have, or at least some elements in the country patronise, is not working to anybody's advantage", it was accompanied by the assertion "that we must use every possible opportunity to talk to Pakistan."

India's willingness to not rise to provocations and keep the dialogue with Pakistan going has won it a lot of brownie points in the West. If nothing, India's attitude of sweet reasonableness has undercut the Pakistani plea that it cannot focus on anti-terrorist operations along the Afghan border because its forces are preoccupied on the eastern border. The rhetoric of the Pakistan military has, in fact, shifted in recent months. Instead of highlighting the danger from India, Pakistan's security establishment is now stressing the difficulties of swimming against the torrent of anti-Americanism.

Pakistan's unending footsie with the Afghan Taliban and the ISI-endorsed LeT is unlikely to change as long as these are perceived to be in that country's national interests. India can continue with meaningless talks in the fond hope that a spirit of accommodation will tilt the balance of power inside Pakistan in favour of the civilian government, vis a vis the military. That's like believing that the billions of dollars of US aid will regenerate Pakistan.

Western thinking on the subject is surprisingly candid. India's engagement with Pakistan must be with an eye on accommodating some of Pakistan's concerns on Kashmir. Riedel suggests that by mid-2007 back channel diplomacy had led to both sides arriving at a working compromise on all outstanding disputes, including Kashmir. These could not be unveiled and brought to the negotiating table because the environment in both countries argued against it.

The idea of the Line of Control as the international boundary, complemented by a 'soft' border that allowed lots of people-to-people contact and trade is appealing. Such a 'solution' will find favour in India. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the Pakistan army will agree to abjure the "unfinished agenda of Partition"—an agenda intermingled with the determination to avenge the humiliation of Dhaka, 1971. Nor will the 'betrayal' of the Kashmir Valley be acceptable to the Islamists who are increasingly setting the agenda in Pakistan. If bilateral 'engagement' is aimed at formalising the back channel consensus, both countries may have to wait a generation or two.

For the moment, India's ability to assist in Pakistan's return to normalcy is almost zero. New Delhi can continue to talk without illusions, always mindful that no commitment by Islamabad is ever its last word on the subject.

India can 'engage' with Pakistan till the cows come home but realism suggests that a policy of benign neglect based that blends vigilance with political procrastination won't be misplaced. Till Pakistan comes to terms with itself, it is best for India to stick to trade and civil society exchanges.

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, June 3, 2011

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