Saturday, May 21, 2011
Help Pakistan, despite its own follies
It has been more than a week since the killing of Osama bin Laden, but the furore it has created simply refuses to die down. Mostly, of course, the tumult is now a great deal about Pakistan’s bluster, matched evenly by Indian bravado.
It doesn’t take much to see where Islamabad is coming from. A country which has made mendacity an intrinsic part of its national policy is compelled to rant when caught out. But just what accounts for the bluster and boast that we are seeing from New Delhi? Can it be the fact that the United States has walked the talk in its promise of getting its man dead or alive, while India can only gnash its teeth and moan about the opportunities it has lost in the past?
Some Indian pain comes from the false comparisons that are being made between Indian and American capabilities and circumstances. Take just the satellites—the US would have had the use of half-a-dozen of a kind India will probably take another thirty years to acquire— the 18 tonne KH-12 satellite which can provide real time imagery of interest from space, the Lacrosse radar satellite which can provide the imagery through bad weather, the Intruder which snoops on communications traffic and so on. Besides the billion dollars or so it takes to build a satellite, you need a launch vehicle of the Delta IV or Soyuz class
which can hoist 10-20 tonne satellites to low earth or geosynchronous orbit.
The stealth helicopter that the Americans used is of a class that no other country in the world possesses. The Pakistan Air Force chief may now claim that his radars were not active, but his initial statement was that the radars failed to pick up the American helicopters. Being in the Islamabad air defence zone, there is no way that the radars would have been inactive.
More important, are the circumstances, and possible consequences of an operation launched by the US, and one launched by India. Let’s be clear, if the US operation had come apart, it would have led to great embarrassment for the Americans. Success, as you can see, has led to a great deal of tension between Washington and Islamabad, but they still remain on talking terms. At the end of the day, both need each other, albeit for different purposes. And this mutual dependency does generate a degree of moderation in their discourse.
An Indian operation, on the other hand— success or a failure— would have almost certainly triggered off a wider war. This is because Pakistan perceives itself as India’s rival, while despite poor relations it is used to being a surrogate of sorts of the US. There should be no surprise that while Islamabad feels humiliated by the bin Laden killing, it also feels that the asymmetry between it and the US is much too great to convert its anger into a practical policy of retaliation. The US is, after all, half-a-globe away.
In the case of India, however, not only would Islamabad feel compelled to retaliate, it also has the wherewithal to do so. India may prevail in a long war with Pakistan, but no war between two nuclear armed countries is going to be a long one. And for a short one, the ratio between the land forces the two sides can deploy is roughly even. In any case, war, with a possible nuclear outcome, is not something that anyone should contemplate with equanimity, even though some of our hawks think we are being over-cautious. And therein lies India’s frustration, and the recourse of its hawks to false bravado.
And so we come to the issue of the policy that India needs to adopt towards Pakistan. In the past ten days, since Osama was sent to his maker, there has been a torrent of criticism of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying that Pakistani duplicity undermines the very basis of his peace policy. This would be true if you accept the simplistic, and indeed caricature, version of Pakistani reality trundled out by our chicken hawks. In this version, everyone and everything in Pakistan is duplicitous and therefore there is little use in negotiating with them.
There is nothing wrong in holding that belief, but the question that the hawks must answer is: If Manmohan Singh’s flexible engagement is not the right policy, what would they suggest?
We hear a great deal about why Mr Singh is wrong to engage with Pakistan, but his critics do not provide a coherent and sustainable policy option. Neti, neti, may be good philosophy, but it’s no substitute for policy.
Talks with Pakistan may yield little. But at least they have the value of maintaining an engagement with some parts of the fractured Pakistani deep state. It also has the benefit of keeping international opinion on our right side. At a time when Pakistan is trying to get the US to nudge India out of Afghanistan, engagement with Islamabad, howsoever cosmetic, serves to signal that our relations with Pakistan are not as bad as Islamabad claims they are.
Given the balance of forces, war is not a viable option between India and Pakistan. No one will doubt that the Indian military will fight with great bravery if asked to do so. But can a war deliver the outcome of our choice — an end to Pakistan’s support for terrorism? The lesson of all wars is that it is one thing to initiate it, quite another to be able to control its course and consequences.
Pakistan is a far more complex problem than what many of our hawks assume. It does not have the clinical pathology of a schizophrenic. That would be simple indeed. Its dangerously fractured polity has now been seriously compromised by the power of Islamism.
The political power of the Pakistani deep state is divided between the civilian politicians and the Army. But today both these institutions have been neutered. The civilians have been battered by the street power of the jihadists and the Tehreek-e-Taliban’s suicide bombers. More dangerously, perhaps, the Army and its Inter Services Intelligence Directorate may now have Islamist networks operating within, unbeknownst to their leadership. This can explain both, as to how Osama bin Laden came to be living in the Abbottabad compound, and how elements in the ISI provided the wherewithal for the Mumbai
The civilians acknowledge this openly, but the army is paying the price for trying to put a lid on it. That explains why, despite suffering huge losses in its battle with jihadists, the Pak army is hesitating to clinch the war in North Waziristan. The army, which has always seen itself as the guardian of Pakistan, is clinging even more desperately to its national flag.
The rhetoric about breaches of Pakistan’s sovereignty and humiliation acquires a nationalistic narrative instead of being allowed to gain the jihadist twist. Given Pakistan’s history, a lot of that nationalism translates easily into anti-Indian jingoism. A bit of schadenfreude may be fine but anti-Pakistani jingoism would hardly be the appropriate response here.
The Pakistani deep establishment which was flying high for so many decades, is visibly stalling and so our effort must be to ensure its soft landing, rather than permit a devastating crash.
Mail Today May 12, 2011