The government has learnt its lessons from the Sharm el Sheikh surprise. The resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan has been a carefully choreographed affair. This is evident from External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s opening gambit in Islamabad where he spoke of David Coleman Headley and the Mumbai terrorist attack. Yet, South Block has not quite catered for the rapidly changing context of Pakistani policy towards India amidst the stasis in Islamabad.
Earlier this week a Pakistani commentator claimed that there has been “a healthy change in the tone and tenor of the Indian leaders’ statements on relations with Pakistan”. The truth is more complex and harder to detect. While New Delhi, encouraged by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, continues to push normalisation with Pakistan, there is an increasing disconnect between the actors in Islamabad who shape policy towards India. There are four issues here.
First, the internal situation in Pakistan where the government seems to be unable to establish its grip on the affairs of state. This allows the viral spread of what is called the Punjabi Taliban to take place without any check.
Second, India’s primary concern— the wrapping up of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba— seems to be the furthest from Pakistani minds. The trial of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and others continues desultorily. As for Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, he seems to have been emboldened by the inability of the Pakistani state to act against him.
Third, the Headley interrogation may have deepened the divide between the civilian government in Pakistan and the Army which may have been more deeply involved with the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba than previously known.
Fourth, the main focus of the more significant half of the Pakistani governmental system—the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi—is not India but Afghanistan.
For the GHQ, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna’s meeting with his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi is only a sideshow, or, rather a holding operation. We have reports of General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani undertaking shuttle diplomacy with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. Other reports purveyed in the slick ISI-sponsored websites suggest Lt Gen Ahmad Shuja Pasha, almost the anointed successor to Kayani, enunciating a new strategic policy for his country, one that could lead to Pakistan breaking away from the US-led war against the Taliban in the region. The reason for this, the sites put out, is that the US was allowing India a free hand in Afghanistan, something that militated against Pakistan’s vital national interests.
Krishna and Qureshi
The reason for all this was the much publicised declaration by President Barack Obama in December 2009 that after a surge of forces there, the US would begin withdrawal from Afghanistan by July 2011. In retrospect, this was a blunder. No doubt Obama intended to signal that the US commitment would not be open-ended, but he also set a deadline which appeared to be suspiciously linked to his re-election campaign. Its effect was to set the cat among the pigeons.
The hard pressed Pakistan Army and the Taliban realised that all they needed to do was to wait out the US and then things would fall on their laps. At the same time, it sent a signal to Hamid Karzai in Kabul, that perhaps discretion would be the better part of valour, and that he better start mending his bridges with Islamabad and Mullah Omar. In recent months, the GHQ began to push the idea of a reconciliation between the Haqqani network, perhaps the most formidable grouping of the Taliban, with Kabul. The Haqqanis—Jalaluddin and Sirajuddin—are Pakistan’s principal proxies in Afghanistan.
But things have not been going as planned. As it is, the US time-table in Afghanistan has gone awry. The plan to dominate the Marja has not worked and the much touted Kandahar offensive is yet to get off the ground.
Whether or not it will succeed is an entirely different thing. But, as often happens in human affairs, the Pakistani game plan has now been beset by an unexpected development. The replacement of General Stanley McChrystal as the commander of US forces in Afghanistan by David Petraeus has led to a significant shift in US strategy. The former was the author of the original surge and quit plan, while the latter is known to be a supporter of a longer range strategy. He has quickly sent the message to both Islamabad and Kabul that he will not support a reconciliation strategy till the Haqqanis had been militarily weakened— a sound negotiating strategy.
With the negative fallout of announcing its date of withdrawal becoming obvious, the US is now going out of its way to send the message that it will be around for as long as it takes to put things on the right track. Generals Kayani and Shuja Pasha may find that their overreach in Afghanistan may yet cost them dear.
One consequence of the US blunder was that India began hedging against a precipitate American withdrawal. This has been manifested by a conscious decision to repair ties with Iran, the only country through which New Delhi can directly intervene in Afghan affairs. India formally opposed the new US sanctions on Iran and expressed skepticism about the success of the United Nations sanctions.
Earlier this month, the foreign ministers of the two countries presided over the 16th Joint Commission meeting between the two countries and signed six minor pacts signaling that New Delhi wished to retain normal, if not close, relations with Teheran, despite the recent imposition of UN sanctions on Iran. This way, India has signaled that it is prepared for the US cutting and running and will continue to be involved in Afghanistan, no matter how the Washington-Islamabad duet plays out.
As it is, that act is not sounding too good now. Pakistan’s blatant end-run around the US in Afghanistan has become obvious. So we are finding a much more cynical American attitude towards the Pakistanis. Reports in the American media, investigations by their Congressional committees have begun focusing on the GHQ’s favourite jihadi group—the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. The more ominous ones say that the Lashkar has now fully become party to the war against the United States forces in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile even as the GHQ focuses on the Afghan front, the time bomb that is Pakistan itself continues to tick. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan attack on the shrine of Datta Ganj Baksh, said by some to be Lahore’s patron saint, brought home the lesson that is driven home to children: if you play with fire, you could burn yourself.
Pakistan is like a bomb whose fuse has been lit on two ends. Contrary to popular perception, those two ends are not in Kabul and New Delhi, but within Pakistan itself.
This article appeared first in Mail Today July 16, 2010