A `deal' for peace

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Pakistan's response to Vajpayee's initiative has to be evaluated in the context of the U.S. position on terrorism post-September 11 and the Indian pressure on the military and diplomatic fronts.

in Islamabad

"HISTORY has been made," declared a visibly tense President Pervez Musharraf. He was talking about the signing of the peace `deal' with India to a gathering of 100-odd journalists at his presidential palace even as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was headed back to New Delhi after the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit in Islamabad.

There was a sense of disbelief among journalists, who had returned from three different press conferences - by Pakistan Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and a joint one by India's External Affairs Minister Yashwant Sinha and National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra.

Let alone a sense of history having already been made, the press conferences did not even give the impression that history was in the making. So, when Musharraf sounded like the United States' Administrator in Iraq Paul Bremer the day Saddam Hussein was captured, there was utter confusion in the minds of hundreds of reporters who had come from all parts of the world to report developments on the India-Pakistan front on the sidelines of the SAARC summit.

Musharraf's statement made good headlines but there was little information to substantiate the claims made. Had the statement come from a civilian set-up, it would have been dismissed as hyperbole. But Musharraf is a different category - he is the most powerful President Pakistan has ever seen and he continues to don the cap of the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS). In Pakistan it is the Army that has the final say on vital national matters, and presumably Musharraf was talking on behalf of the institution he is likely to head until the year-end.

The characterisation of the joint press statement as `historic' has triggered a volley of questions. The questions being asked in Pakistan are fundamental in nature. The term `historic' employed by Musharraf is being redirected at him to find out if it was he and his regime that took the momentous decisions required to make friends with India. In other words, is Pakistan ready to reverse its policies on Kashmir and India that it has been nurturing since its birth in 1947? It is no ordinary question, as the answer would invariably have to touch on the very ideological edifice on which Pakistan is built.

Few rulers in Pakistan, be it military or civil, have attempted to articulate the question, let alone answer it for fear of stirring up a hornet's nest. Is this what Musharraf is attempting to do? If he is, is it under pressure or in response to the changed geostrategic and global environment post-9/11? In order to effect a shift in a policy that has been the mainstay of the Pakistani polity for 56 years, it is essential to prepare the ground for a change in mindsets nurtured and spawned by the state. Is such a trend visible?

In the answers to these questions lies the future of the latest endeavour by India and Pakistan to settle their long-standing differences, particularly on Kashmir. As things stand, there are no clear answers to these questions. After all, both sides have been down this road several times before.

However, one crucial difference this time is that it is the first major initiative in the post-9/11 scenario in which the U.S. has sought to define a new world order. Pakistan was forced, under pressure from the U.S. and its allies, to do a U-turn on Afghanistan and join the coalition against terrorism. It has done pretty well considering the stakes it had in Afghanistan and the investments that it made in the country for over 25 years in order to acquire strategic depth.

The military establishment had little option but to turn the heat on the fundamentalist organisations that it had helped nurture with generous help from the West to take on the erstwhile Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. For the first time since the demise of President Zia-ul-Haq, there was serious debate, if not action, on the harm caused by the Islamisation policy.

Islamabad's response to Vajpayee's initiative has to be evaluated in this context and in the light of the tremendous pressure exerted by India on the military and diplomatic fronts to force Pakistan to rethink its Kashmir policy. There is the realisation in Pakistan, though a grudging one, that peace with India is in its interest and that a `bleed India' policy would not pay dividends beyond a point.

In the short run, there is little doubt that in Musharraf's assessment, Vajpayee is the best bet for himself and Pakistan. Musharraf wants Vajpayee to return as Prime Minister in the next general elections. He gave full credit to Vajpayee for the joint statement and said that this was made possible because of the latter's "vision and statesmanship".

Even more significantly, he hailed it as a victory for the "moderates" in the two countries. "It is a victory for all the peace-loving people of the world, victory for the people of India and Pakistan, victory for the people of Kashmir who have suffered all these years and are still suffering, and victory for the moderates in India and Pakistan."

IT took courage on the part of Musharraf to disclose that in the course of his telephone conversation with Vajpayee the day he left Pakistan, the Indian Prime Minister had advised him to protect himself from extremists. "We congratulated each other. We both showed the resolve to move forward... I wished him very good health and he wished me protection," Musharraf said at a press conference, in an obvious reference to the recent assassination attempts on him.

However, he admitted that extremists could again target him, particularly in the wake of the latest developments on the India-Pakistan front. Replying to a question, Musharraf asserted that the government had resolved to rid Pakistan of extremists. Significantly, here was an acknowledgement from Pakistan's President that terrorists had neither religion nor affinity and that perhaps the time had come for Pakistan to review at its policy of distinguishing between `freedom fighters' and `terrorists'. "We have to take to task all the extremists in any shape or colour," he said, adding that no extremism would be allowed in Pakistan.

Musharraf's interpretation of the joint press statement makes interesting reading. Noting that there were three points in the statement, he said that one was that Kashmir was "an issue which needed to be resolved", the other was that a composite dialogue had to be started on all issues, including Kashmir, and the third was that Pakistan had reiterated its resolve to fight terrorism and not allow its soil to be used for terrorist activities. "Yes, there are extremists on both sides who may not want peace, take extreme and inflexible positions, who may like to sabotage this process," he said, in response to a question. He said he "could never guarantee" a ceasefire in the Valley or in other parts of Kashmir.

Logically, Pakistan's Kashmir policy should have witnessed a shift once it abandoned the Taliban in Afghanistan under pressure from the U.S. and joined the international coalition against terrorism. Caught between the new friend India and the old ally Pakistan, the Bush Administration could not go beyond a point in forcing Islamabad to rework its Kashmir and India policy. After all, Washington needed and still needs Pakistan to help `stabilise' the situation in Afghanistan.

The situation changed dramatically after the October 1, 2001 attack on the Srinagar Assembly and the December 13 attack on Parliament. The unprecedented pressure that India brought on Pakistan changed the dynamics of power play in South Asia and made it one of the most volatile regions of the world in 2002. The two nuclear neighbours were engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation for eight long months.

India made two demands - a permanent end to the infiltration from across the border and the dismantlement of the terrorism infrastructure. These issues overshadowed the efforts by the U.S. and its interlocutors to bring India and Pakistan to the negotiating table. The fact that it took well over two years to find a formulation that satisfied the concerns of India and Pakistan is a reflection of the complex nature of the differences between the two countries.

A cursory glance at the 153-word joint press statement issued after the 65-minute meeting between Vajpayee and Musharraf is enough to show that Islamabad has made serious commitments in return for starting a composite dialogue on all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir. It is a complete reversal of its earlier position that the resolution of the Kashmir problem was imperative to the improvement of relations with India. In simple words, the commencement of dialogue is conditional. It could be halted any time India believed that there was violence, hostility and terrorism owing to terrorism controlled by Pakistan.

Musharraf has assured India of its full assistance in dealing with the obstacles that might arise in the way of a final declaration on Kashmir. Said Foreign Minister Yaswant Sinha: "There is an assurance. There is a certain situation on the ground. We are proceeding on the basis of the assurance and the ground situation as we see it." Observers believe that there is likely to be a further crackdown on Islamist radical groups.

Nevertheless, there is a growing perception in Pakistan that under pressure from the U.S., the government has changed its Kashmir policy. The fact that Musharraf deemed it necessary to meet representatives of political parties from Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and assure them that there was no `secret deal' with New Delhi on Kashmir was an indication of the extent of misgivings on the issue. Carefully avoiding any reference to United Nations resolutions on Kashmir, which has been the mainstay of Pakistan's Kashmir policy in the last 54 years, Musharraf told leaders from POK that their wishes would be kept in mind while holding the dialogue with India.

For some time now there have been rumblings within Pakistan and within POK over some of the actions of the government, particularly since the peace initiative of Vajpayee in April 2003. There are growing fears that Pakistan might abandon its Kashmir policy all together. For instance, Musharraf's statement in the course of an interview to the news agency Reuters that Pakistan had `left aside' U.N. resolutions on Kashmir came as a shock. The actions against jehadi organisations such as the Jaish-e-Mohammad are seen in this context.

There is consensus within and outside Pakistan that the military has emerged as the final arbitrator on all matters of state because of its indispensability as the `protector of the Islamic identity' of the country and the key role it played in the Kashmir issue. Can the military afford to show flexibility beyond a point on Kashmir and hope to retain its total grip on the state?

The latest deal with India, to borrow a phrase from Musharraf, rests entirely on the shoulders of the Pakistan President. However, Musharraf has vowed to take off his uniform by the end of the year. If the situation, as it evolves, does not warrant another course of action, it can be assumed that he would keep his commitment. But there is no guarantee that the Pakistan Army minus Musharraf would stand by his commitments. The fate of Zia-ul-Haq who presided over the destiny of Pakistan for 11 years is a case in point.

Unlike Vajpayee, for whom the effort could be a winning argument during the campaign for the general elections, the stakes for Musharraf are very high.

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