Dealing with Pakistan

Published : Jan 30, 2009 00:00 IST

EVEN though it is a coincidence, the utterly horrifying and grossly disproportionate Israeli military aggression against Gaza has brought home to many Indians the profound absurdity of relying on overwhelming force to deal with conflict or discontent. The phenomenon that Israel is trying to put down, Hamas militancy, is a creation of its own occupation of Palestine and its brutalisation of people in one of the poorest and most wretched territories anywhere in the world. Israels claim of acting in self-defence against terrorism is despicably hypocritical given that 14 Israeli civilians have died since 2001 in home-made missile attacks from Gaza, while Israel has killed more than 5,000 Palestinians in the same period, besides making life hell for hundreds of thousands.

The Israel-Palestine analogy does not apply to the India-Pakistan case. But the savage violence visited upon Gaza, which has already resulted in the death of more than 500 people and caused large-scale devastation, has had a salutary effect in discrediting the idea that military force is the preferred and natural answer to terrorism.

Mercifully, there has been some abatement of tension between India and Pakistan, and New Delhi no longer threatens to use the military option. But the danger of outbreak of a conflict has not gone away. A conflict will almost certainly break out if there is a second terrorist attack by a Pakistan-based or -linked group itself a hair-raising possibility that cannot be ruled out or reliably prevented.

So long as Pakistan refuses to hand over some key terrorists to India or to crack down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and related groups, the danger of conflict will remain. Having publicly made tough demands on Pakistan, India has very few options but to wait for Islamabad to act.

So far, there are few signs that Pakistan will act the way India wants it to. Nor can India effectively coerce Pakistan into compliance given their peculiar not-so-asymmetrical mutual strategic equation. Pakistans civilian government is far too weak to want to risk antagonising the military, which recently reasserted its primacy by vetoing Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilanis agreement to send the Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to India in response to the Mumbai attacks.

Going by the Pakistani Armys recent actions, including covert support to Taliban-Al Qaeda militants who destroyed 300 trucks carrying supplies to the United States-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the ISIs involvement in the attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul in July, and the reluctance of the top brass to cede political control over the agency, the military appears loath to make a complete break with extremist ideologies and jehadi groups like the LeT, of the kind that former President Pervez Musharraf promised after September 2001.

Yet, it is clear that Pakistan must make such a clean break and execute a paradigm shift in policy if it is not itself to be devoured by extremism. How can India help facilitate such a break, and achieve its objective of strengthening the civilian government and building alliances with moderate elements in Pakistan, while isolating the extremists?

Indias task is not an easy one. Matters are not helped by the fact that irresponsible media coverage in both countries, and missed opportunities for cooperation and joint investigation soon after the Mumbai attacks, have bred a national-chauvinist climate in Pakistan. This climate is a guarantee that coercive diplomacy will fail and that even guarded statements will be misinterpreted as insulting or provocative. The Army has exploited this climate and appropriated the role of the guardian or custodian of the Pakistani state.

Although no direct connection has been convincingly established between the attackers and the military/ISI, there is a fair amount of overlap between the Armys perception of its strategic interests and the motives behind the Mumbai attacks. Even Home Minister P. Chidambaram does not cite specific evidence of such a link or of logistical support from the ISI although his political assessment is that a crime of this scale and size cannot be committed without active state help (Indian Express, January 5, 2009).

At any rate, going by the emerging evidence and analysis, the attackers motives were fivefold: to provoke a military response from India, as in December 2001, which would allow a redeployment of Pakistani troops from the western border and greatly relieve pressure on the Taliban-Al Qaeda; to punish India for its close strategic alliance with the U.S., consummated above all by the nuclear cooperation deal; to warn and prevent India from meddling in Afghanistan, possibly covertly with the ISAF; to sabotage the India-Pakistan peace process; and finally, to widen the communal divide in India and trigger a backlash against Muslims through the enactment of draconian laws.

Many policymakers in Pakistan believe these objectives are worthy. For instance, it is Pakistans right to seek strategic depth in Afghanistan and develop a strategy to counter a future hostile U.S.-India-Afghanistan alliance and to isolate and dismember it. Some are deeply suspicious of the peace process. Some even think, like hardliners in India, that the two countries cannot coexist peacefully.

True, many voices of sanity are now audible in Pakistan, including an excellent statement by prominent civil society organisations and activists like Asma Jehangir, I.A. Rehman and Ahmed Rashid (The Hindu, January 5, 2009), that call for restraint, a rejection of the military option, and firm action against jehadi extremists. These need to be reciprocated in India. Indeed, one hopes that appeals for restraint, defence of civil liberties and use of non-military approaches would be generated from all Indian cities and from different citizen and intellectual forums. Yet, admittedly, the odds against a cooperative approach will remain heavy in the short run.

In the circumstances, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has decided to rely upon the U.S. to exert pressure on Pakistan. In an unusual move, it shared the exceptionally rich evidence on the Mumbai attacks gathered through satellite and Internet telephone records, e-mail signatures, logs from hijacked ships, fingerprints and deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) samples, and so on, with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The FBI was allowed to interrogate Ajmal Amir over many sessions.

The government has shared some of the evidence with some other countries and has offered to do so even with China. But it has not yet officially shared it with Pakistan. This makes no sense even on the assumption that Pakistani state agencies might have lent logistical or other support to the attackers. Indias real focus should be on confronting Pakistani agencies with clinching evidence that they find hard to refute. The sooner this is done, the better.

But the hope in New Delhi is that the FBI will confront Pakistan with the shared evidence and with its own tapes of reported conversations between some of the attackers and their minders in Pakistan, especially the LeTs Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Zarar Shah. According to Dawn and The Wall Street Journal, both have confessed to their role in planning and executing the attacks, and Shah is singing. This is good news. But it remains unclear whether the FBI can secure the LeT mens extradition or take the investigation forward decisively to prosecution.

Apart from Washingtons parochial calculations, which might work against Indias interests, this is a fraught course. There is a point beyond which the U.S. cannot push Pakistan given its own dependence on it for prosecuting the war in Afghanistan. President-elect Barack Obama wants to make Afghanistan his war, with a major troops surge. Pakistans cooperation is critical here. It is hard to predict how events will shape up in this very complex situation. But it is clear that the UPA is risking a gamble without fully exploring multilateral approaches like moving the United Nations Security Council under a slew of resolutions pertaining to terrorism, from 1373 to 1566, under which punitive measures can be imposed on states that fail to act against terrorism.

If the Washington-based gamble fails, the UPA will again be tempted to use the military option either overtly through strikes and dubious methods such as hot pursuit or covertly by mounting secret operations against Pakistan from Afghanistan, where India has established a series of consulates.

This would be a disastrous course, which will launch India and Pakistan into an unending spiral of rivalry and cloak-and-dagger operations in which nothing is untouchable and no targets are excluded. This could in some respects be worse than, but a likely precursor to, open war, with its horrifying potential for a nuclear holocaust.

There is a way out of this patient diplomacy aimed at steadily reasoning with Pakistan on the basis of evidence, calibrated smart sanctions (for example, travel restrictions on leaders and withdrawal of military aid), rewards for a crackdown on extremists, and getting the U.N. to appoint a contact group to ensure that Pakistan acts. This will not be easy, but it will at least avert other pitfalls, such as excessive dependence on Washington or outright war.

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