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A new approach

Print edition : Jun 04, 2010 T+T-
in Islamabad

THE spirit of reconciliation that the people's government of Pakistan has adopted as a mantra for itself appears to be working. Or so it would seem from the grit of will shown by the Pakistan government in the face of seemingly provocative statements made by Indian and American leaders after the trial court verdict in the Mumbai terror attacks case and the abortive attempt to bomb New York City's Times Square.

While the stoic silence of the Pakistan government to United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statement that it should do more to end terrorism was perceived as the helplessness of a key ally of the superpower, the same could not be said for Pakistan's refusal to be provoked by harsh statements that came from senior Indian Ministers P. Chidambaram (Home) and M. Veerappa Moily (Law, Justice and Company Affairs).

After the Mumbai trial court held Pakistani national Ajmal Amir Kasab guilty in the November 26, 2008, terror attacks, Chidambaram described the judgment as a message to Pakistan that it should not export terror to India. Veerappa Moily echoed similar views three days later when Kasab was given the death sentence. Having persisted with its contention that dialogue with India is the only sensible way forward, Pakistan walked on eggshells in the wake of the Mumbai trial court order and was careful not to say a word out of place that would unravel the Thimphu peace process, which, on May 3, the day of Kasab's conviction, was just about four days old.

Keenly conscious that Pakistan's sincerity in the war against terror remains suspect despite its operations in Swat and South Waziristan against terrorists who had moved into these areas after the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan post-9/11, the Foreign Office labours the point that for the first time in Pakistan, the politicians and the establishment are on the same page.

Meetings between Prime Minister Syed Yusuf Raza Gilani and Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani are well publicised possibly to give a semblance of cooperation and Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the media after telephoning his Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna on May 11 that consultations had begun with the civilian and military leadership of Pakistan on how to resolve outstanding issues with India.

Given the hold the Army has traditionally had over Pakistan's foreign policy, particularly vis-a-vis India, keeping the military establishment in the loop at every stage is crucial for the success of any India-Pakistan process. Memories of 1999 are still fresh when the then Army chief, Pervez Musharraf, planned and executed the Kargil infiltration even as the then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, engaged in bus diplomacy with his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This is a page of history that the region can ill afford to revisit, most of all Pakistan as it makes yet another attempt to institutionalise democracy in a country that has spent half its life under military rule.

Call for dialogue

Pakistan's persistent calls for dialogue after India suspended the composite dialogue process following the Mumbai terror attacks drew ridicule for the political leadership. It was perceived as begging India to talk and as a sign of weakness. Added to this was the anger over the seeming inaction over India's perceived water aggression of building dams in Jammu and Kashmir and robbing Pakistan of its share of water under the Indus Waters Treaty (IWT).

As for India's contention that Pakistan has taken no credible action against the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks, the Foreign Office cites the time taken by the trial court in India to convict Kasab to explain the delay in conviction in the parallel case that is going on here. Legal processes take their own time, has been the refrain of Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit.

When the trial court in India itself took over a year to convict Kasab, why do you expect Pakistan's courts will be able to conclude the trial against the seven accused here in the same case faster. That, too, when the scene of crime is elsewhere and the prosecution has built its case on incomplete dossiers provided by India, said Malik Muhammad Rafique Khan, one of the advocates defending the seven undertrials in the case in Pakistan.

Upbeat about the developments in Thimphu particularly the vindication of its stand that dialogue is the only way out Pakistan does not expect miracles in the days to come; not with the kind of historical baggage that weighs down both countries. With the Foreign Minister-level talks announced two months in advance and Foreign Secretary-level negotiations over a month away, Shah Mahmood Qureshi warned of efforts to scuttle the process and hoped that non-state actors would not prevail over the little headway that had been made.

When we meet, we will have to sit and resolve that we will not allow acts of terrorism to impede the process. This is a valuable process and we should build it to a level that it becomes irreversible, Qureshi said, echoing a point he had apparently raised with the Indian delegation in Thimphu. Given the fragility of similar engagements between the two countries, Pakistan insists that it is eager to have in place a mechanism that is insulated from elements that want to keep India-Pakistan relations on the boil indefinitely.

Unlike after Sharm-el Sheikh when both sides were bound by a joint statement but chose to interpret it differently, this time round without such a document both countries are mouthing the same words. Both insist that Thimphu does not necessarily mean a return to structured dialogue but see it as an effort to address the trust deficit between the two countries.

Pakistan gives India credit for the absence of a joint statement, as a result of which both sides have more elbow room while opponents to the process have been left guessing with little to nitpick on. Had there been a document or some tangible concession given by either side, there would have been a fair amount of hair-splitting by even those favouring an India-Pakistan engagement. Now, even the media have fallen silent after the predictable round of discussions.

Meanwhile, the phrase trust deficit appears to have nudged composite dialogue off the table as Pakistan maintains that it will not nitpick over nomenclature as long as all issues are discussed. While Qureshi said, a day after the summit meeting in Thimphu, that the dialogue should be picked up from where it had been suspended in November 2008, indications from the Foreign Office a fortnight later were that Pakistan would not turn this into a prestige issue.

If the two countries can agree on this, our preference would be to pick up the threads from where they were left but, is the Foreign Office line. Five rounds of the composite dialogue had taken place and work on three issues Kashmir, peace and security, and terrorism had been wrapped up when the Mumbai attacks eclipsed the process.

As for India's refusal to resume the composite dialogue process, officials here seek to point out the irony that India was junking a word it had insisted on in the first place. We wanted the dialogue to be called comprehensive, but India preferred the word composite.

Buoyed by the Western world's acknowledgement of its efforts to contain terrorism originating from its soil, there is a sense here that India, too, should show some magnanimity. For starters, a response from India on the note verbale sent by Pakistan on April 9 for World Bank arbitration of the Kishanganga hydro project may help.

Though Qureshi has tried to drive home the point that India alone is not responsible for Pakistan's water woes and some of the blame lies in poor water management by successive governments the acute water shortage across the country gives credence to conspiracy theories of India stealing water to ruin Pakistan.

In the India-Pakistan context as with this country's blow-hot, blow-cold relations with the U.S. suspicions are easy to fuel. This was evident once again in the aftermath of Pakistani-American Faizal Shahzad being picked up for the Times Square bombing attempt.

Again, drawing rooms are abuzz with conspiracy theories of the U.S. using Shahzad to intensify drone attacks in North Waziristan where Pakistan has been slow in starting operations against terrorists.

And, Hillary Clinton's interview to CBS News channel's show 60 Minutes has only served to lend credence to such theories. In her remarks, the Secretary of State said that while Pakistan had been cooperating with the U.S. in its war on terror, Washington wanted more and we expect more. She added, without being prompted: We've made it very clear that if heaven forbid an attack like this that we can trace back to Pakistan were to have been successful, there would be severe consequences.

Further, according to Hillary Clinton, some Pakistani officials know more about Al Qaeda and the Taliban than they let on. I'm not saying they're at the highest levels, but I believe somewhere in this government are people who know where Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda is, Mullah Omar and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban is

Swallowing the bitter dose from the Secretary of State, the Pakistan government weathered the storm, refusing to engage in any rhetoric despite pressure from the Upper House of Parliament to take an unambiguous stance on what was seen as an open threat. That strategy appears to have paid off as it is the Americans seemingly all hot and bothered under the collar who are doing all the clarifying.

Assistant Secretary of State P.J. Crowley and U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke have given long clarifications, maintaining that Hillary Clinton had been misrepresented. Pakistan, for its part, insists that it has not taken any offence; adding that Clinton's statement was obviously for domestic consumption. More so because CBS quoted Qureshi as saying the following immediately after the bombing attempt: This is a blowback. This is a reaction. This is retaliation. And you could expect that. Let's not be naive. They're not going to sort of sit and welcome you eliminate them. They're going to fight back.

Once the Americans started clarifying Hillary Clinton's statement, Qureshi finally reacted. I would not like to read too much into these statements. There's no need for an emotional reaction. Calm down, there's nothing to worry. Our relationship is moving towards a partnership. This was seconded by his bureaucrats, who said everything was on schedule as far as the strategic dialogue with the U.S. was concerned.

About the U.S. insistence on launching full-fledged operations in North Waziristan, official sources conceded that it would have to be done sooner than later. But the when and how would have to be decided by the armed forces and not under international pressure. We need to consolidate our hold over Swat, Bajaur and other areas that we have recovered from the terrorists. If we open another front just now, we fear that what we have done till now will unravel, said Abdul Basit.

Similar views came out of the General Headquarters of the Army. The Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Sardar Mahmood Ali Khan, was reported as stating that North Waziristan was on the Army's agenda. It is a long-drawn battle, a long-drawn war, and we are continuing and there is a definite plan, there is a definite strategy which is being followed. It's just not fire-fighting because there's a whole lot of areas affected by this. And, the terrain is not easy.

Add to this the tensions along Pakistan's eastern border, with India. Pakistan's contention is that unless that situation eases, it cannot move forces into North Waziristan while carrying out operations in South Waziristan. As Pakistan sees it, India could help in the war against terror by reducing cross-border tensions.