By Bhaskar Roy
Asking the Indian government to cautiously welcome the statements emerging from Pakistan is not being cynical. The statements coming from Pakistani Foreign Minister Ms. Hina Rabbani Khar, main opposition leader Mian Nawaz Sharif, head of PML (N) and surprisingly even army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani offering to demilitarize Siachen and to set aside even the Kashmir issue for friendly relations with India naturally raises questions. Statements from all the three came almost in a chorus, suggesting behind the scene coordination at least between the government and the army. Why this unprecedented U-turn? Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) founder and former Prime Minister late Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto had said Pakistan will fight with India even for a thousand years for an independent Kashmir.
Ms. Khar’s statement in Islamabad on April 17 would have taken the international community by surprise. She said that Islamabad now trusts New Delhi than ever before and believes the Kashmir dispute cannot be a road block. She went on to say “This only states the clear direction of our foreign policy that we will not let go any desire from India unattended”. Ms. Khar further expanded on her India thesis saying Pakistan was turning a new leaf, and suggesting that the political view would ultimately subsume the military mind-set and problems are ultimately solved politically.
The Foreign Minister then drew attention to the recent avalanche in the Himalayan Siachen glacier which buried 138 people mainly Pakistani troops. She suggested Pakistan and India review troops deployment in Siachen.
Speaking (Apr.18) at the Skardu airport after a visit to Siachen Gen. Kayani suggested demilitarization of Siachen and peaceful co-existence with India. Kayani reasoned his opinion on economic and social imperatives of the two countries saying the massive expenditure on military could be diverted to the well being of the people.
Of course, there are detractors to this line of thinking. Tehrik-e-Insaf Pakistan (TIP) Chief opposed Nawaz Sharif’s view that if required Pakistan must first withdraw from Siachen. The Islamic daily Nawa-e-Waqt tore in Ms. Khar accusing her of betraying the nation. The Nation, another widely read English language newspaper of Pakistan, has questioned the peace policy and emphasized that their Kashmir policy cannot be changed.
The proposals from Pakistan’s two main pillars, the army and the government appear so good that they almost sound surrealistic. India and Pakistan came close to an understanding on Kashmir in the last decade and a half, but the carpet was pulled out from under the feet at the last moment by somebody. Nawaz Sharif, as prime minister in the 1990s came close to some agreement with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, but Gen. Musharraf launched the Kargil military misadventure. Musharraf then ousted Sharif in a coup. Later Musharraf himself reportedly came near to a solution on the Kashmir issue with India, but then he was also ousted by a judicial and people’s movement. As an aside, however, it is very difficult to accept if Musharraf would really go through an agreement. He has proved himself to be a consummate liar in both internal and foreign policies.
It may be useful to pause and recall observations of Musharraf and his hand picked successor army Chief. Gen. Kayani. Musharraf is on record to have said that even if the Kashmir issue was resolved Pakistan will have other problems with India. Kayani told a NATO meeting in Brussels some years ago that Pakistan had nothing common with India – ethnically, culturally and in religion – and there was no meeting ground.
In addition, the frustration over the loss of East Pakistan (Bangladesh) allegedly because of India comes out strongly in any debate especially from the military, intelligence and right wing sections. They have sworn to themselves to break up India at any cost. Only, they refuse to admit that East Pakistan broke away because of political and economic conditions created by West Pakistan, and this movement in the eastern wing started earnestly as early as 1952.
A huge anti-India population reigns in Pakistan, most on fabricated propaganda from the military and the state. At the same time, there is a growing light. Many in politics, media and intellectuals are welcoming thaw with India, and have questioned Pakistan’s India policy.
The recent trade and commerce agreements between the two countries have received overwhelming response from the Pakistani business community. The Pakistani civilian government deserves as much kudos as the Indian side. There is also a new excitement in Pakistan’s cultural community – fine arts, performing arts, and writers – which India needs to respond to adequately, especially where visa is concerned.
There are signs of some political-army adjustments in Pakistan. No civilian government in Pakistan lasted its full term. But the government, led by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari are determined to complete the government’s term. Both leaders are besieged by charges from the Supreme Court – Gilani on contempt of court, and Zardari on the Memo gate scandal and money laundering. There were talks in Pakistan that Gilani would call for an early election. But he has now reiterated repeatedly that the elections will be held in due time next year. Such confidence can come only from political structural power.
This PPP led government was dominated by the army and its intelligence arm, the ISI, from the very beginning. This has been the pattern of Pakistan’s civilian government all along. Political leaders were to blame to a great extent. They conspired to bring in the army to rule to serve their personal interests.
Over the last six months or so, especially when Zardari and Gilani came under twin pressure from the Supreme Court and the army, the political leaders began to fight back. The army distrusts Zardari, perceived as pro-US and friendly to India. Gilani is seen as Zardari’s partner refusing to kow-tow to the army.
Gilani took the army head on last year, and within and outside Parliament made it emphatically clear that the army was subservient to the constitution and, therefore, subservient to the government. Emphasizing on the Parliamentary system of government, it was determined that foreign policy will be made by parliament. Under these conditions, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS) gave the recent non-binding guidelines for relations with the US. From all accounts, this was a major achievement for the Parliamentary system, though the army still remains as a part of policy making circle, and the ISI is yet to be reined in any manner.
When President Zardari came to India on a day-long religious visit on April 08, and had lunch with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, he took a briefing from the army. Apparently, Zardari told the army that the decision for the visit had been made. The visit was welcomed from important sections in Pakistan.
The army appears to be on the back foot at the moment. The discovery of world’s most wanted terrorist Osama-bin Laden in the army town of Abbottabad, the militant attack on the Mehran air base, assassination of journalist Salim Shahazad allegedly by the ISI among other things have brought down the army’s profile. The Supreme Court has also called the ISI for accountability on assassinations and missing persons.
India responded immediately and positively to the Pakistani statements to discard past baggage and start relations with India on a fresh footing. Such statements from Pakistan especially the army suddenly coming from nowhere is obviously perplexing for Indian analysts both within and outside the government. Still, the government is willing to an extent to give them a benefit of doubt, but in such high stake diplomacy caution is the watch word.
Over the last two years or so, it has been noticed that some of Pakistan’s front line liberal media, especially in the print section, demanded proof when leaders like Interior Minister Rehaman Malik saw an Indian hand in any terrorist act in Pakistan. Ultimately it was proved that terrorism in Pakistan were the acts of those terrorist groups set up by the ISI to target Afghanistan and India. These groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and their surrogates have taken a life of their own. They are rabidly radicalized, fighting for an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan and opposing every inch of Pakistan’s relationship with America.
At the same time, sectarian violence has seen a spurt. More than 600 Shias were killed this year in Gilgit-Baltistan area by Sunni extremists nurtured by the ISI. This is going to ultimately debilitate Pakistan. Similar is the case in Baluchistan. To state briefly, the cancer that the army and the ISI spread has come back to haunt them.
Noted Pakistani commentator Ayaz Amir is of the view that there is a growing feeling in Pakistan that the era of animosity is over and people want to move to a new phase of relationship. He also says that the old situation in the army has also changed and obsession with India as an enemy is no longer dominant. Ayaz Amir points to the Taliban as the larger problem. In his view, fomenting militancy in Kashmir was a flawed policy, and people are beginning to realize that. This, coming from Ayaz Amir, is another surprise. He was, at one time, a vociferous supporter of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy.
In the past when Pakistan suffered setbacks especially in its policy with India and the US, they went to their ‘time tested, all weather’ friend, China. Pakistan was also of vital strategic interest to China. Islamabad not only played a crucial role in bridging China-US normalization of relations. It allowed itself to be used by Beijing to counter India and was rewarded with nuclear weapons and strategic arms aside from conventional weaponry for its army, navy and air force. Pakistan helped China in its relation with the West Asian and Gulf Muslim counties. There is more mutual benefit between the two.
But things are changing. China is no longer an East Asian rising power. Its global stature and power is rising, and it wants to be seen as a ‘responsible stake holder’ in global affairs. Beijing has realized that its efforts to keep India locked in South Asia has failed. China and India have many differences, but equally the two have common objectives in which the two are working together. Both have articulated at the highest levels that there is enough space for the two to work in Asia and it is not a zero sum game. The more than $ 60 billion trade between India and China compared to about $ 2 billion in China-Pakistan trade tells an important story.
From 2008 when Chinese leaders started openly saying that Uighur militants of Xinjiang were being trained in militant camps in Pakistan, it signaled something new. This charge has been repeated in recent months, too. True, China can take care of the Uighurs. But the Al Qaida influenced Islamic upsurge can go beyond Xinjiang to other Muslim inhabited regions in China. That could seriously disturb stability and challenge development. China, simply, cannot afford that.
In the recent past the Chinese have given enough open signals to Pakistan to stabilize relations with India. An Indo-Pak war is not in China’s strategic interest. Despite Pakistan’s economic woes China has helped little, though Beijing is sitting on a mountain of more than three trillion dollars in foreign exchange reserves. The Chinese are very clear about their priorities and interests, and they expect Pakistan to understand this. But China will continue to assist Pakistan in the military field, and those are no longer free as the proposed two nuclear power plants.
The US-Pakistan relationship is at the lowest ever. Since 2001, the US has been Pakistan’s largest aid giver, and shaped international assistance to Pakistan. Pakistan borrowed $ 7.6 billion in 2008 thanks to US interlocution. Time has come to start repayment, but Islamabad has no money. It is now seeking a fresh package from the IMF for loan for debt service. Pakistan has become an economic basket case.
Pakistan has landed itself in this situation because visceral antipathy towards India, and raising terrorist organizations to subsidize its strategic policies both at home and abroad. Almost all terrorists apprehended in the west have a trail back to Pakistan. The force behind the policy has been the Pakistan army and the ISI.
The army/ISI-religious extremist nexus have indoctrinated army personnel and common people especially the Madrassa students and alumni into a mindset of hatred, a dangerous nationalism for any country. But unfortunately, many educated young people have taken the same line thanks to the ISI’s influence.
Basically, Pakistan has shut itself so tightly from the global consensus that it has begun suffocating. The question is how strong are the voices who are pressing for change?
India must take these statements from Pakistan seriously. But it must also wait for the proposals to come officially from Islamabad. The Pakistan foreign ministry bureaucrats do not seem to be on board. Along with the army and the ISI, the Pakistani foreign service establishment has historically prosecuted a hard line with India.
Given the litany of issues, the Pakistani proposals are only the tip off the iceberg. Certainly, the Siachen issue should be resolved. But there must be an iron clad international guarantee that the Pak army will not do a Kargil in Siachen.
There is the issue of terrorist camps, and Pakistan’s nurturing of terrorist organizations like the LeT, Jaish-e-Mohamad and Hizb-e-Islami among others. No one in Pakistan wants to touch Hafiz Saeed, the founder of LeT and current head of Jamaet-ud-Dawa. The Mumbai attack of 2008 was not conducted by some splinter groups as some Pakistani commentators like Ayaz Amir would like us to believe. Too much evidence is available about the conspiracy being directed by Hafiz Saeed and his LeT, supported fully by the Pak army and the ISI.
Pakistan must review its policy in Afghanistan vis-à-vis India and Afghan government. The old stated Pakistani policy in Afghanistan crafted by the Pak army and the ISI still seems to be in place. Unless this policy is changed and the Afghan government and political parties are allowed to work out their nation, peace and stability will be a distant dream.
Certainly there is good news and a sweet breeze. The mountain ahead is steep and high. It is now not only India and Pakistan. The international community must contribute to strengthening the civilian Pakistani government, ensure it complete its tenure, and empower the parliament. Miracles to happen.