Peace as priority

Published : Aug 14, 2009 00:00 IST

A Pakistan Army patrol in Kabal in Swat valley on July 15.-ABDULLAH KHAN/AP

A Pakistan Army patrol in Kabal in Swat valley on July 15.-ABDULLAH KHAN/AP

THE challenge that confronted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Sharm-el-Sheikh was how to manage the competing and conflicting expectations of various constituencies that he needed to take along as Pakistan and India moved towards jump-starting the peace process that had ground to a halt following the terror attacks in Mumbai. Owing to the frosty and emotive relationship the two countries share, the slightest exhibition of flexibility by any one side attracts damning proclamations of capitulation from hawks within the country, despite complete knowledge among all stakeholders that lasting peace between India and Pakistan can only be built upon compromise. The joint statement issued at Sharm-el-Sheikh is a welcome development for peace in the subcontinent notwithstanding instant declarations of victory and defeat issued by detractors in India and Pakistan.

Two aspects of the joint statement are particularly noteworthy from Pakistans perspective. One, it recognises that the whole gamut of actions demanded by India in order to confront militant groups based in Pakistan and harbouring terrorist designs against India cannot be a prerequisite to recommence the composite dialogue. And two, the mention of Balochistan acknowledges, without including any formal accusation against India by Pakistan, the concern and perception widely shared by the state and society in Pakistan that Baloch separatists are being supported (if not sponsored) by Indian intelligence agencies. Both these developments need to be understood in the right context.

The governments of both India and Pakistan acted with commendable maturity in the immediate aftermath of Mumbai despite the belligerent tone adopted by the media in both countries. This prevented the outbreak of an armed conflict between the two countries. Notwithstanding the restraint, Pakistan was put on an international trial by India through persuasive diplomacy and aggressive media management. But the charge that non-state actors responsible for Mumbai had the explicit or implicit support of Pakistans intelligence agencies did not stick.

There were at least three reasons why Pakistan succeeded in coming out of the dock. One, the evidence India found and shared with the international community did not establish any direct link between Pakistans state agencies and Mumbai. The twofold charge that Pakistani agencies had created militant groups in the past and were at present not acting against such groups within Pakistan was deemed insufficient to indict the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Two, once it came out of its transient denial mode, the Pakistan government did act upon the evidence provided by India, arrested the named culprits and moved ahead to investigate their crimes, condemned the Mumbai attacks and its architects vociferously and made all the right noises to express its desire to support and strengthen the peace process between India and Pakistan.

And three, the situation in Swat and the tribal agencies came to a head and with a fresh no-holds-barred military action against the insurgents in Malakand division there began the evolution of a consensus across Pakistan that religion-inspired militancy, insurgency and terrorism will need to be fought decisively. Given that the Pakistan Army launched a full-scale war against the Swat insurgency in which it deployed almost the entire Special Services Group its most precious human resource the international community began to draw comfort that Pakistan was no more continuing with the say-yes-do-no policy meant to preserve militants as strategic assets that General Pervez Musharraf had perfected.

In this backdrop, there was need for India to reassess its policy towards the recommencement of the composite dialogue. Post-Mumbai India made two demands in relation to curbing terror groups operating out of Pakistan. One was the immediate-term request to prosecute the operators and sponsors of the Mumbai attacks.

And the other was the generic demand to dismantle what India calls the infrastructure of terror within Pakistan, that is, India-focussed militant groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba and their suspected extensions such as the Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

The agreement to delink recommencement of the composite dialogue from actions on terrorism thus signified the understanding that the immediate-term demand of prosecuting the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks would be delinked from the medium-term demand of dismantling the infrastructure of terror within Pakistan. The former would be accomplished immediately while the latter would be dealt with as part of the composite dialogue, the scope of which already covers terrorism.

Once you concede that peace and normalcy would serve the national interest of both India and Pakistan better, the decision to move ahead with the composite dialogue and delink the immediate-term and medium-term actions imperative to curtail terrorism makes abundant sense. Indias continued insistence on implicating Pakistans Army and intelligence agencies for their role in nurturing and supporting loosely controlled non-state militant groups would tantamount to beating a dead horse. True, the Pakistani state has had a role in rearing the Frankenstein that is now lighting up fires of intolerance, bigotry and terror across Pakistan, apart from planning and executing attacks across Pakistans borders. But that original sin was the product of a grand geo-strategic design conceived by the West led by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and implemented by Pakistan.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the U.S. role in propping up militants in this neighbourhood, and President Asif Ali Zardari, for his part, recently accepted Pakistans involvement as well.

The unofficial argument of Pakistan after Mumbai was not that the Pakistani state has no historic responsibility for the misconceived jehadi project, but that it had no continuing involvement with the acts of terror being carried out by militant groups that were out of its control, especially given that the citizens and law enforcement officials of Pakistan were the primary victims of terror.

The world changed on 9/11 in a sense that it outlawed the use of terror inflicted by non-state actors in pursuit of strategic objectives of the state. This new norm that emerged overnight forced Pakistan to recalibrate tactics being employed by the state to promote and protect its declared national security objectives. As all major actors involved in the Afghan war against the Soviets have skeletons in their closet, there has been a shared desire not to hold states and their agencies responsible for past sins and misconceived policies. Once the responsibility of past conduct is separated from the liability for contemporary policies, acts and omissions, and the gauge for determining culpability in todays world is adjusted accordingly, the Pakistani state and its agencies seem to pass muster.

Over the past half a decade, the Pakistan Army has taken many more casualties in the war against insurgency at present raging on in its northwest than all other wars fought by the country put together. Pakistan has lost more civilians to terror over the past few years than any other country in the world in such a short time. And the cost of this war for Pakistans economy has been colossal. It has also been acknowledged by the U.S. that in the first phase of the war against militancy in the post-Musharraf era, still underway in Swat, the Pakistan Army has fought valiantly, resolutely and without distinguishing good militants from the bad. In its second phase, now in the offing, the war effort will be expanded to cleanse Waziristan and other tribal agencies of militants.

There are signs of significant change in the strategic thought process of Pakistans national security planners, who are buoyed by the initial success in Swat. They no longer seem to harp on the theme that the Taliban and other militant groups functioning as appendages must be viewed as strategic assets. The second phase of the war is, however, expected to be more fierce and difficult than the first phase and could preoccupy the Pakistan Army for a much longer period.

What India fears is that even if the Pakistan Army succeeds in the first two phases of its war against insurgents and terrorists in the north-west, there might not be a third phase of this war where the Pakistan Army would take on the India-focussed militant groups based in Punjab, who have no record of attacking citizens or security agencies within Pakistan.

This is the part of Pakistans infrastructure of terror that India is predominantly concerned about, and hence the erstwhile insistence that dismantling of such infrastructure be a precondition for peace talks. But abiding by Indias request at this time is not possible for Pakistan for reasons of capacity and not necessarily will. For the same reason that Pakistan would never wish to be engaged in an external war on the eastern and western front simultaneously, initiating the third phase of war against militancy in Punjab, while the second phase in the tribal belt drudges on, is neither feasible nor desirable: it would overstretch the Army and its fighting capacity.

It is undoubtedly in Pakistans interest to eradicate all militant groups without regard to their professed goals and targets. There can be no exception to the growing acknowledgment that Pakistans jehadi project was misconceived since inception and that the political, economic, social and diplomatic costs for the country of breeding or tolerating militant groups, inspired by an obscurantist and intolerant version of religion and trained in the art of violence, are prohibitive. Such recognition has gained tremendous ground over this past year and the consensus against religion-inspired terrorism is likely to harden over time. But the process of purging militants and the ideology supporting them will be arduous and time-consuming. It will entail debating and redefining the role of religion within the country, initiating effective madrassa reforms, plugging international conduits that finance militant groups, and revisiting and revising Pakistans strategic doctrine.

Thus, while the success of the peace process must be gauged by the steps taken in the right direction, holding the initiation of the process hostage to achievement of the end goal in one realm that is, terrorism would amount to scuttling the multifaceted peace process itself. It is in Pakistans interest, as well as in the interest of improved relations with India, to plan for the third phase of the war against militancy. But such recognition will need to come from within Pakistan to bolster its political and military will to initiate a disruptive war within its heartland in Punjab.

India does not possess any levers of power capable of coercing Pakistan into making such a decision, and thus holding out on the composite dialogue cannot help. However, a peace process aimed at resolving fairly all pending disputes between India and Pakistan could empower India with more persuasive ability in its dealings with Pakistan.

The success of the peace process is contingent on understanding the sensitivities of Pakistan and India and questioning previously unquestioned assumptions. The reference to Balochistan in the Sharm-el-Sheikh statement, for example, underscores two fundamental concerns of Pakistan. One, that the future of Afghanistan has direct consequences for Pakistans security and strategic interests, and proposals for an enhanced Indian role and presence on Pakistans western border within Afghanistan even under the garb of continuing developmental activities will continue to cultivate suspicion within Pakistan. And two, the move to shelve permanently the jehadi project must be accompanied by a principled decision to end the proxy wars being waged by the intelligence agencies of both countries.

In this regard, the insistence on the part of India that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) is under effective civilian control, which makes any accusations of Indian intelligence activities and interference within Pakistan outlandish, is a non-starter. Intelligence outfits across the world indulge in horrendous crimes in the name of national security. Civilian control alone does not make the incendiary nature of intelligence work kosher. Merely because Pakistan, as a tactical matter, predominantly elected to recruit and train its own citizens for exporting subversion and India did not, does not necessarily mean that India eschews the opportunity to support and nurture subversive elements within Pakistan. There is thus a need for India to investigate the information being provided by Pakistan and decommission any intelligence projects that are at present operational.

Finally, the success of the peace process will depend on the ability of leaders in both countries to convince their people to buy into the compromises that the two countries will need to make in order to establish permanent peace. And this seems an area where Pakistan has a head-start in comparison to India. By proposing his soft border solution, General Musharraf took a giant step away from Pakistans traditional view that Kashmir can only be solved in consonance with the half-century old U.N. resolutions and readjusted public expectations regarding a final settlement of the dispute.

Similarly, Zardari also extended the olive branch to India: he has reportedly stated that he views militants in Kashmir (the non-indigenous Kashmiris) as terrorists; he has stated multiple times that he entertains no threat from India and wishes to build strong trade relations; and he recently acknowledged the role of the Pakistani state in fostering militant groups.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singhs statement in the Indian Parliament declaring his intent to meet Pakistan more than half way in pursuit of peace and the sensible joint statement issued from Sharm-el-Sheikh are steps in the right direction. But more will need to be done. If peace is to be given a chance in the subcontinent, the challenge for the leaderships of Pakistan and India is not to allow themselves to be held hostage by public opinion rooted in past hostilities and failed ideas. The perseverance needed to sort out substantive disputes between the two nations will need to be accompanied by dexterous management of the expectations of domestic constituencies in both countries.

Babar Sattar is a lawyer and columnist based in Islamabad.

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