Averting a drift —Tanvir Ahmad Khan

As friends of the United States and as ardent seekers of a final rapprochement with India our foremost task is to point out to them that hasty “retaliation” for actions which are by no means clear would be utterly counter-productive

India’s National Security Adviser, M K Narayanan is known for circumspect public statements. In April this year he told the Indian and foreign participants in the India Global Forum held in New Delhi that India welcomed a stable Pakistan and that the transition to democracy in Pakistan would help further the building of a mutually beneficial relationship. He did not seem to be just exercising the unique Indian gift of saying the right thing to influential westerns; he was evidently brushing aside the speculation that India was too hooked on General (retd) Pervez Musharraf as the sole individual capable of delivering acceptable compromises on Kashmir and other contentious issues to hail a new elected government in Pakistan.

What might have made this deliberate and sober man to come out three months later with easily the angriest and most provocative statement vis-à-vis Pakistan ever since the two countries began the composite dialogue?

Admittedly, the event he was commenting upon had sent a wave of shock and grief across India. An Indian diplomat and a senior military officer were among more than forty innocent people who died when a suicide bomber attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul. This gruesome tragedy was, however, preceded and succeeded by other atrocities in the area in which Pakistanis, Afghans and Americans met violent deaths in various kinds of ambushes and assaults.

Clearly, there is an enemy that, on the face of it, has not only the capability of launching such attacks but also the cunning to vary his tactics for political effect. Those who sent the bomber to the Indian embassy, which is not far from sensitive Afghan establishments, would have marked an unusual success in fuelling a bitter war of words in the region which could lead to even more serious consequences if not quickly checked.

Having observed that India not only suspected but possessed “a fair amount of intelligence” on Pakistan’s involvement in the Kabul bombing, Narayanan declared war on Pakistan’s intelligence services. The ISI, he said, needed to be ‘destroyed’. He also chose to reveal that India had made this point “whenever we have had a chance”.

Not to be outdone in the blame game, President Hamid Karzai too quickly singled out the ISI, though his initial allegation was notable for the pretence of not naming it directly. This initial shade of caution, however, soon gave way to a virulent campaign by the Karzai regime to lay every failure, including the spectacular jail break in Kandahar in which the Taliban freed a thousand of their comrades and allies, at Pakistan’s door.

Pakistan’s ISI is often credited with the prowess and outreach it probably never possessed. But that is hardly the point. For the average Pakistani it is simply unimaginable that any agency of the government would try to threaten the architecture of India-Pakistan peace that is being so laboriously put together and which is pivotal to the future of a region with more than a billion people. The theory that there are individuals in it who are bent upon condemning this region to perpetual turmoil remains a glib over-simplification unless its exponents produce tangible evidence to identify such individuals and prove this theory.

What is, however, beyond doubt is that a most sensitive swathe of the region is sliding inexorably into anarchic violence. No long term strategies for meeting this challenge emerge as the dominant powers continue to rely primarily on the stakeholders augmenting their capability to match violence with greater violence. In the acrimonious discourse on whether the regional states are mobilising enough of their coercive capacity, it is often forgotten that the physical battlefield constrains how much power can be actually deployed. Invariably, the solution is found in the mystique of air power and surgical strikes against an enemy that is all too willing to absorb the cost and even thrive on it.

In the Pakistani imagination it is the return of the proverbial nutcracker, the cliché of a two-front situation that the nation began with in 1947. It is doubtless an exaggeration. Neither the Americans in Afghanistan — the barbarians at the gate — nor the Indians would, on calmer reflection, find it in their interest to destabilise Pakistan.

The present situation is probably, or at least one hopes, the result of fury traceable to actual events rather than a conspiracy plan. Both the United States and India want to be seen as doing something to avenge, retaliate (Narayanan’s word) and reaffirm their great power status. Great powers can indulge in murder and mayhem and hope to cite freedom and liberty as a justifying cause of their actions. But such actions run the risk of bringing the dynamic of revenge and retaliation into play. That too is a lesson of history.

Our beleaguered ambassador in the United States rightly argues that many people in Pakistan may fail to correctly evaluate the dangers lurking in the present situation. He may well be under pressure, as Dr Maliha Lodhi once was, to convey the back-to-the Stone-Age message. One hopes that Ambassador Haqqani would not, this time, advise acquiescing in what the hawks in the United States may be demanding.

This is not what diplomacy is all about. As friends of the United States and as ardent seekers of a final rapprochement with India our foremost task is to point out to them that hasty “retaliation” for actions which are by no means clear would be utterly counter-productive.

It is time for urgent diplomacy — creative, upfront, credible, unambiguous and integrally linked to our broad national objectives of promoting stability in Afghanistan and making friends with our great eastern neighbour. This inflamed region is no place for scoring points.

The writer is a former foreign secretary

Daily Times, 18/7/2008

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