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Between the line

No go from regional solution
October 21, 2009


NEW DELHI should realize that the road to Beijing goes through Islamabad. This is what a Pakistan foreign minister told me many years ago. There is some truth in this even today. Likewise, Islamabad would have known by now that its route to Kabul lies through New Delhi. This is not to suggest that India is helping Afghanistan in its armed struggle against Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan.

What it means is that New Delhi can wield influence over Kabul. The hospital it has built at Kabul and the roads and power transmission lines it has laid there despite the killings of Indian engineers and workers have earned the Manmohan Singh government the trust of an average Afghan who sees in India a friend. This goodwill can benefit Islamabad if it can have even a workable relationship with New Delhi.

Another attack on India’s embassy at Kabul last week is nothing new from the point of view of Taliban who regard India as their enemy and economic development an anti-war measure. But the role of ISI in such attacks is difficult to comprehend. Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao stopped short of naming Pakistan during her visit to Kabul soon after the attack on the Indian embassy. Since a similar attack in 2008 turned out to be “scripted” at Rawalpindi—America gave all the details collected through the satellite—the suspicion on Islamabad is natural. The Afghan ambassador to the US has even named Pakistan.

This may or may not be true. But an average Indian believes that it must be the handiwork of the ISI. It is the same old mistrust between the two countries that clouds the judgment. Yet both have known to their cost that Taliban consider them their enemy. The attack on the Army headquarters at Rawalpindi earlier in the week reconfirms the fact that when it comes to causing harm, the Taliban make no distinction between Islamic Pakistan and secular India.

Why have not New Delhi and Islamabad sat together to plan a common strategy? Kashmir does not have to be sorted out before solving other problems. The situation in Afghanistan is too serious to brook any further delay. Every gain that Taliban make in Pakistan is at the expense of India’s security. But certain irritations need to be removed. Islamabad should give up the idea of having Afghanistan as their area of strategic depth. Kabul lives under the fear that Islamabad is out to belittle or destroy it. Just as the stability of Pakistan is essential for the stability of India, Afghanistan’s viability is necessary for Pakistan’s viability. Essentially, the fight against Taliban is the fight for free world.

But the most important step for India and Pakistan is a joint, concerted action against Taliban. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said at a press conference at Mumbai: “If we work together to deal with this menace (terrorism), a larger good can come out of it.” Patronization of terrorists by Pakistan, he has said, “has done a great harm to South Asia.” Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik’s allegation that India was trying to export terrorism does not help the situation. When Manmohan Singh charactersies it “a false accusation” that should set the doubts in Pakistan at rest. Manmohan Singh has seldom personally rubbished a statement. The release of Hafiz Saeed may further delay the composite dialogue.

The real problem is General Stanley A. McChrystal’s assessment. He is America’s new commander of operations in Afghanistan. He has said that India was “exacerbating regional tensions” and encouraging “Pakistan’s countermeasures” by increasing political and economic influence in Afghanistan. At the same time, he has said, Indian activities “largely benefit the Afghan people.” The economic measures which New Delhi has undertaken in Afghanistan are bound to endear India in the eyes of the Afghans. Even otherwise, the latter has been at logger heads with Pakistan for ages.

The American commander’s assessment can be a talking point between New Delhi and Islamabad. When both agree that Taliban are the biggest menace they can surely find a common strategy for joint action. They can adopt different ways, economic or military, but they should have one policy to tackle Taliban.

Pakistan’s reluctance to move troops from the Indian border to Afghanistan is understandable. Islamabad is making the same point which New Delhi was making when it was in the midst of a war with China in 1962. Pakistan has argued that while it is concentrating its full attention on fighting Taliban, India should not in any way be disturbing it on the border.

In 1962, both US President Kennedy and British Prime Minister Macmillan had told General Ayub, then heading Pakistan, not to take such steps as would in any way distract New Delhi’s attention from fighting against China. Jawaharlal Nehru’s fear was that Ayub would march into Kashmir once India was to withdraw its forces from the border with Pakistan. General P.N.Thapar, Chief of the Army Staff, was urgently asking for the government’s permission to move the troops from the Pakistan border to the theatre of war in Assam.

Washington and London talked to Islamabad and assured New Delhi on Pakistan’s behalf that it would not attack India. Only then did India withdraw one division from the Pakistan border. Krishna Menon, then India’s Defence Minister, was opposed to the move. He considered Pakistan No. 1 enemy, not China. Still Thapar did withdraw the troops after getting Nehru’s permission.

The fact that Ayub did not open the second front, although it was an opportune moment for him to do so, proved that he was withholding his hands. Still Ayub used the opportunity to give China the northern areas of Kashmir, then under Pakistan’s occupation. He wanted to establish closer relations with Beijing. Islamabad has followed that policy strictly.

President Asif Zardari, like Nehru, has conveyed more or less the same fears in similar words to President Barrack Obama and other visiting senior US officials. He has asked them to give a guarantee that New Delhi would do nothing if Pakistan were to withdraw troops from the border with India. Islamabad is far from satisfied by mere statements that there was no question of India attacking Pakistan. Still, with all the assurances given by America, Islamabad has withdrawn only a brigade and has kept back all the forces on the border with India intact.

Whatever the situation and from wherever you start, you find loads of mistrust. The inevitable conclusion is that there is no alternative to rapprochement between India and Pakistan. President Obama once talked about a regional solution to Afghanistan and other problems between the countries. There is still no go from it.

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