March 06, 2010

Foreign Influence and India-Pak Talks

South Asia Analysis Group

By Bhaskar Roy

No one expected the February 25, 2010 Foreign Secretary level talks between India and Pakistan to yield any result. And it did not. Both sides held on to their scripted stands except that the Pakistan Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir liberally used sarcasm in his post meeting press conference. India’s Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, on the other hand, held her position with dignity in her press conference.

Salman Bashir’s press conference, pre-scripted and well rehearsed, was marked by his reference to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh twice. Bashir conveyed Pakistan’s message that Foreign Secretary and Foreign Minister level talks were cosmetic steps to go upto Prime Ministerial level talks. To push the point, he saw to it that the Foreign Secretary level talks were made irrelevant. With both Foreign Secretaries agreeing to remain in touch, it was made clear they will be preparing the agenda for a Prime Ministerial level meeting most likely at Thimpu on the sidelines of the SAARC Summit to be held in end April.

A sharp debate erupted in India over the Foreign Secretary’s talks among political parties and foreign policy experts. The overwhelming opinion was against the talks, suspended after 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack originating from Pakistan, since Islamabad had done very little to bring the main culprits to justice. Pakistan had filibustered through, and arrested seven Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) senior leaders following intense pressure from India and the US. Finally, LET Commander Lakhvi and six others have been put on trial, but such trials can be open-ended. Pakistan refuses to move against - the mastermind of the 26/11 attacks - Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD) Chief, Hafeez Saeed also founder of the LET, as the mastermind of the attacks. Salman Bashir dismissed the latest evidence given to him by India as “literature” rather than evidence.

Apparently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh took a long term view of the Indo-Pak relations. It is alleged that during Gen. Musharraf’s Presidency the two countries came very close to resolving the Kashmir issue. With his fall the entire project fell apart. Former Pakistani Foreign Minister, Khurshid Kasuri, who worked with Musharraf, vouches for near closure of the deal around 2006.

Unfortunately in Pakistan, as in many political and ideology infested developing countries, foreign policies which require critical decisions do not go forward from one government to the next. Pak President Zardari, a victim of Musharraf's persecution, would like to do things a new. More than him, Pak army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani has other ideas about India.

Prime Minister Singh has perhaps done the right thing by going for the talks. India made its point to Pakistan and the international community by freezing the composite dialogue with Pakistan for 15 months. Just holding back talks does not achieve anything tangible especially when Pakistan’s main interlocutor now, the US, plays its own games for its Af-Pak policy. India cannot fully rely on US help to compel Pakistan to act on terrorism against India. Hence, India has to talk to Pakistan keeping the international community informed, and not involved.

There is, however, the question of the timing of the talks. Should India have waited for some more time to see how Pakistan goes forward with the trial of the LET cadres? Many in the government endorse this view. We are past this stage now.

The political parameters of the talks are the main issue. Pakistan wants resumption of the composite dialogue package. But there are mechanisms already in place to work separately on the water sharing issue, the Siachen glacier demarcation, and the Sir Creek demarcations. India must emphatically stick to the demand that “terrorism” is the main issue and without addressing it first there can be no serious dialogue on the Kashmir issue.

Pakistan’s argument that terrorism is the child of the Kashmir issue entails no longer. Both Musharraf and Gen. Kayani have been on record that leaving aside Kashmir, there is no meeting ground between Pakistan and India. Both gentlemen made their respective statements while in uniform. This is the Pakistan army’s doctrine, and it is for the Pakistani political parties and the people to address this doctrine.

The case of JUD Chief Hafeez Sayeed must be seen from the angle of the Pakistani army doctrine. Here is one man whose ideological influence runs deep among the various Pakistani jehadi organizations including some like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) which is fighting the state only because it is collaborating with the USA. Otherwise, it is willing to fight India along with the Pak army.

The JUD is listed as a terrorist organization with the United Nations. Yet the organization flourishes in Pakistan under the garb of a social organization. The JUD, LET, HUJI, and the Afghan Taliban of Mullah Omar and the Haqqani network in Afghanistan are almost declared assets of the Pak army against India and Afghanistan. Hafeez Sayeed networks most of them and others. Therefore, even if the civilian government in Pakistan wants to take serious action against Hafeez, they cannot. The army calls the shots. Where matters relating to India, Afghanistan and the USA are concerned the army has the last word.

A critical element in the India-Pak talks is that of foreign influence. In this, the role of the US has become overriding. Immediately following the February 25 talks, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement that they had encouraged India-Pak direct talks at the highest level, and were even gratified with the initial break through. A US White House spokesman said he looked forward to a prime minister level meeting in the near future.

It is no secret that the US has been pushing India for sometime now to reopen talks with Pakistan, and ease Indian troop deployment along Pakistan’s border to encourage the Pak army to safely deploy more troops to its north-east frontier.

It can be well understood that USA’s overriding concern is the Al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist forces aligned against the US who enjoy the largest swath of territory along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. After much denial, Pakistan accepted that Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura really exists in Quetta. These elements cross over to Afghanistan, attack US and coalition forces and melt into Pakistan including in North Waziristan. The US is very much aware that the Pak army is reluctant to launch operations in these areas where their assets are ensconced. The Pak army uses the India bogey as an excuse not to redeploy their forces from the eastern frontier to their northern areas.

The US has also been easing pressure on the James Headley case to appease Pakistan. Headley a.k.a. Abdul Ghani, a Pakistani origin US national was closely involved in “26/11” Mumbai attacks, surveying Mumbai and other parts of India including Jewish Synagogues, and briefing the LET with photographs, videos and verbal descriptions. He was arrested by the US. The Headley interrogation by the FBI has thrown up a mine of information of terrorist involvement from Pakistan’s soil, with circumstantial evidence that elements of Pak army was involved in the Mumbai attack.

The Headley case is particularly important for the US as the LET network was planning attacks in India on foreigners especially American and Jewish targets. Headley, along with a Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin based in Chicago, Tahawwur Rana, and the LET were planning an attack on the Danish newspaper office in Denmark which had published cartoon of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The LET has emerged as an international terrorist organization, with links to the Al Qaeda and the Taliban. In the face of evidence the Pak army can hardly deny any relationship with the LET as it was fathered by the ISI.

Although the Americans have shared some information on the Headley-Rana case with India, Indian agencies have not been given access to Headley, and not much more information will be forthcoming by invoking US law.

The US may be making a major error here by trying to influence India to be soft on Pakistan. This will not work, and the Americans are woefully uneducated about the history and the psyche of the subcontinent and the strategy of the Pak army. What it is doing, especially to dissuade India’s developmental engagement in Afghanistan, is unwise to say the least.

Reducing India’s space in Afghanistan and allowing the Pak army a predominant role in Afghanistan is a misreading of history and the current situation. The majority of Afghanistan has a much closer relationship with India and the emotional bond exists even today. This should be obvious to the American strategists many of whom still view from the Cold War prism. One can say that even if the Taliban come to rule Afghanistan again, Pakistan will not have a free run there.

The other great influence on the India-Pak relations is China. Beijing cannot influence India, but it can influence Pakistan. Leaving aside Sino-Pak strategic co-operation to counter political and law and order situation, the Pakistan army’s blind pursuit of gaining strategic depth in Afghanistan, with mounting terrorist strikes in India is a huge challenge to China’s security, territorial integrity and influence in the Gulf and Central Asia. China cannot afford to lose Pakistan, its platform and gateway to these regions. Yet, if Pakistan does not pull itself together and continues to thwart positive relations in its neighbourhood, the developments can have serious adverse effects on China.

A little noticed despatch by a special correspondent of Chinese official news agency Xinhua, datelined Islamabad (Dec. 27, 2009) painted a rather bleak and worrying picture of Pakistan. The despatches said that in the 8th year following the “9/11” terrorist attacks in the US, all television channels daily telecast pictures of flesh and blood strewn around, people carrying the dead bodies of their loved ones, and endless terrorist attacks. Criticising the incidents, it said that no place, no institutional building and assets were safe. The lives of the people were engulfed in terrorism, and rising public opinion blamed the US for the situation.

Although the US repeatedly assures the world that Pakistan’s nuclear assets are safe, the Chinese are not so sure. Last year an official report in the Chinese media alerted local governments to be prepared for a nuclear fall out, saying many nuclear installations coming up near China’s borders were unsafe. The circular did not have to say more.

Therefore, the official Chinese media blocked out parts of an address by visiting Pak Foreign Minister Shah Mohammed Qureshi to a think tank (CIS, Beijing Feb. 23, 2010) which said China had a “blank cheque” from Pakistan to mediate between Pakistan and India. This was just two days before the Indo-Pak talks in New Delhi, and Qureshi hoped a positive response from China would buttress Pakistan’s position.

China is not inclined to promote these blundering politicians of Pakistan who have little sense behind their rhetoric. Surrounded by many more challenges including the latest spat with the US over arming Taiwan and President Barack Obama meeting with the Dalai Lama, China wants to maintain stable relations with India.

The US involvement with India and Pakistan is welcome to China. From their point of view the US can restrain Pakistan. US anti-terror engagement in Af-Pak is also welcomed by Beijing to an extent as it may reduce the support China Uighur Muslim separatists get from Pakistan and Afghanistan based Islamic terrorists. But it would not like (a) these terrorists seeking refuge in China’s remote western region of Xinjiang (b) a future US domination over Pakistan and Afghanistan which could spread to Central Asia compelling Chinese interests there, and (c) India gaining influence in Afghanistan which will deter China-Pak influence in Afghanistan.

Notwithstanding its long held position of no third party mediation between India and Pakistan, it would be extremely unwise for India to invite Saudi Arabia to be interlocutor between India and Pakistan even on terrorism. The fundamentals of Saudi Arabia are rather unique. It affords refuge to different Muslim leaders as a pious duty. Idi Amin lives in Saudi Arabia!

Saudi Arabia, a strong influence in Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) supports Pakistan’s position on Kashmir as does the OIC. It supports a strong, stable, Islamic Pakistan. On terrorism, it has problems only with Osama-bin Laden and his Al Qaeda, but has close relationship with the Taliban. A number of Saudi NGOs fund and support Wahabi Islam abroad including certain organizations which resort to extremism. There is hardly any common interest between India and Saudi Arabia to counter Pakistan’s India Centric terrorism. It is always better not to pursue an agenda which is a sure failure. Hence, it is back to the bilateral table, but with the firm position that terrorism must end. When Pakistan renounces using terrorism as weapons to back diplomacy, everything else including Kashmir can be resolved. But to achieve this, ask the Pakistani army.

(The author is an experienced analyst of South Asian region. He can be contacted at grouchohart@yahoo.com)

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