Shifting focus —Abbas Rashid

Unfortunately, sections of the establishment in both India and Pakistan are far from reconciled to the idea of peace and closer ties between the two countries. But, whatever the veracity of these accusations and counter-accusations, they create more space for those who still think militancy is the answer

In Pakistan, the number of those who advocate a peaceful relationship with India has increased steadily in recent years. This is necessary for lifting millions of people in both countries out of the state of abject poverty to which they have been condemned. The sentiment is accompanied by the realisation that perpetual low or high intensity conflict with India is not any more the route to securing a just settlement over Kashmir and a better deal for Kashmiris. Closer ties, in fact, may create more space for a resolution of outstanding issues between the two countries.

The China-India relationship provides a model that underscores the efficacy of such a strategy. It is in this context that we need to look at the new trade policy that has been criticised for showing a ‘tilt’ towards India. Given the intense economic pressures to which Pakistan is currently subjected, it needs to make full use of the advantage of proximity offered by India.

But there is clearly a strategic imperative, as well. It is now clear that resolving the conflict on Pakistan’s western border is not going to be a short-term enterprise. It is necessary for this reason as well for it to minimise tensions on the eastern frontier with India and find ways to take the peace process forward.

But, as past experience shows, the path to better ties with India is unlikely to be smooth. There are many who find the prospect unacceptable. Consider the recent rise in the incidents of violence in Indian-administered Kashmir. And once again there is the charge that those responsible are militants from across the border.

Recently, India’s foreign secretary said the peace process with Pakistan was “under stress” due to alleged increase in attacks by fighters from the Pakistani side of the border. The bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul may also have been geared to secure the reaction that it did, with Pakistan being accused of complicity. Pakistan has, of course, often objected to the large number of consulates opened by India in Afghanistan and accused it of aiding insurgents in Balochistan.

Unfortunately, sections of the establishment on both sides are far from reconciled to the idea of peace and closer ties between the two countries. But, whatever the veracity of these accusations and counter-accusations, they create more space for those who still think militancy is the answer. It is encouraging that despite the stress the peace process has not been derailed but its pace is far from satisfactory. A contributory factor is that Pakistan five months after the elections has yet to put its politics and governance on an even keel and India is looking to the next elections in which the BJP is likely to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent coalition.

At this point Pakistan needs to focus on its western border and ensure that the people of the tribal agencies as well as the settled areas are not left at the mercy of the militants nor is the territory used as a launch pad inviting aggression in return. An improved relationship with India will mean that Pakistan can do so more effectively by among other things diverting greater resources towards the development of these and proximate areas.

It is somewhat strange in this context to come across the news attributed to the US State Department that the administration had decided to shift $230 million from counter-terrorism funds to allow Pakistan to upgrade its F-16 fighter jets. True, Pakistan has an ageing fleet of F-16s that can probably do with an upgrade but considering that the fighters have relevance largely in the context of a war with India, why is this an urgent issue at this point in time?

In fact, even if the government is convinced as per the current ‘consensus’ that a suit of peace deals is our best option for restoring its writ in the tribal areas, there is surely enough reason to beef up our counter-terrorism or anti-terrorism capabilities in the event that this strategy does not work.

But what is more alarming is the rationale provided by the White House spokesperson for providing this support to Pakistan: “The F-16s that they have are used in counter-terrorism operations…We believe that these updates will effectively employ the F-16s — they will be able to use them during night time operations…to fight a common foe.”

If we are seriously considering the use of F-16s in our tribal areas then we should reconsider, regardless of the pressure from the Bush administration. One of the major difficulties in fighting the kind of war that has now been thrust upon Pakistan — in part due to the gravely flawed policies of successive regimes — is that a considerable number of those who are not involved become targets by way of collateral damage. And to use air power in the shape not just of helicopter gunships but fighter aircraft is to risk a far higher casualty rate among the ordinary men and women in these areas.

Other issues aside this will certainly result in swelling the ranks of the insurgents notwithstanding all the talk about precision-guided munitions. This war cannot be won entirely without the use of force. But force applied in a ham-handed fashion can also be counter-productive.

Meanwhile the US presidential candidate Barack Obama has a point when he says that a closer relationship between Pakistan and India can help in resolving the situation in Pakistan’s tribal areas and Afghanistan. Within the framework of such a relationship, India could allay Pakistan’s suspicions as to its intentions and contribute towards efforts to secure peace in the region by using its influence with the Karzai regime in a more responsible manner.

The US could also contribute positively to the peace process by ceasing its opposition to the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline. The opposition by the Bush administration has been based on the premise that Iran stands to gain from the project and that is unacceptable given its categorisation as a rogue state. It is time for the US to review that policy for the broader strategic gain of moving towards stability in this volatile region.

Abbas Rashid lives in Lahore and can be contacted at abbasrh@gmail.com

Daily Times, 26/7/2008

 

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