Indo-Pak parleys adrift, trust amiss

With the monsoon retreating, the Indo-Pakistan parleys drifted from South Asia to the United Nations, where the 67th regular session commenced on September 18. The carefully nurtured bonhomie, insulated from Pakistan’s disinterest in exorcising its terror demon, dissipated as first President Asif Ali Zardari in his United Nations General Assembly address and then his foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, at the Asia Society stirred the Kashmir cauldron.
Why was Pakistan “internationalising” the issue again? Perhaps Mr Zardari realised that time for his India peace initiative is over as Pakistani Supreme Court’s unhappiness over the draft letter to the Swiss government signalled the demise of another Prime Minister and elections, due before February 2013 in any case. Alternatively, was Pakistan testing the mood of newly Islamist regimes in Arab countries afflicted by the “Arab Spring?”
In India, too, the focus shifted to domestic themes as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, albeit belatedly, tried resuscitating the Indian economy. His absence from New York underscored that meaningful foray into diplomacy can only follow restoration of political credibility at home, battered by coalition partners’ blackmail and Congress colleagues’ depredations. It was left thus to S.M. Krishna to parry Pakistan’s repeated public mutterings about the UN’s failure to address the Kashmir issue. Pakistan’s membership of the UN Security Council for the next two years as India vacates its seat in December may also have emboldened Pakistan.
Next year will dawn with a new US President, a fresh government in Pakistan if not in India too, a presidential election in Iran, the 10-yearly transfer of power in China to the fifth generation of leaders and the fruition of constitutional debates, between those for Sharia and those expounding constitutionalism, in numerous Arab countries.
The third US presidential debate would cover foreign policy. Unlike in 2008, so far Kashmir has gone unmentioned. Despite what US President Barack Obama or his challenger Mitt Romney might say, both are for withdrawal from Afghanistan. There is consensus in the US that transfer of control to Afghan National Security Forces cannot wait the shaping of Afghanistan into a functioning liberal democracy. The phrase now is: “Afghanistan good enough”. They may disagree on aspects of withdrawal but not its eventuality. The grey area is whether it is still possible to bring the Taliban to the table having prematurely announced US exit. Henry Kissinger has remarked that it is impossible to negotiate once withdrawal is on the table. Whether a re-elected Mr Obama can take it off the table, renewing pressure on Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan, remains to be seen.
Perhaps, the trilateral between US, India and Afghanistan, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, was both a message to Pakistan and to reassure India that the US was not abandoning the region. Separately, the Chinese are raising their profile in Afghanistan, signing a strategic agreement, holding a trilateral with Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have access to the Taliban through Pakistan, having been the only non-Muslim nation in touch with Mullah Omar in the pre-2001 period.
The Russians made their own moves at the beginning of October. President Putin’s path-breaking visit to Pakistan could not fructify but the rushed trip of foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was significant, as was that of Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to Russia. These are games to broaden the strategic options of each country in the uncertain scenario imagined after the projected 2014 US withdrawal. Who would have imagined that Pakistan and Russia, sworn foes over Afghanistan in the period 1979-2001, could seek mutual solace? Thus, more than one kind of re-balancing is under way in Asia.
The outcomes may be contingent on what kind of new leadership emerges in the entire region. The Imran Khan march or drive to South Waziristan, though ostensibly to protest US drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas, has turned out to be a test of wills against the dreaded Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has dubbed Imran Khan as a “liberal and secular person” and thus unwelcome in their domain. A similar debate rages in Cairo, where the extreme right-wing Salafists are attacking Al Azhar, the time-honoured centre for Islamic jurisprudence, for not supporting the imposition of Sharia in Egypt. In Tunisia, where began the Arab Spring, the Islamist Nahda Party has conceded the secularists’ argument to exclude constitutional reference to Sharia. In India, the narrative has turned to balancing reform and regulation, development and equity, globalisation and protectionism and so on.
Ms Khar, in her Asia Society address in New York, referred to Pakistan’s “regional pivot”, anchored in a vision of regional connectivity and cooperation and manifested in open trade and greater people-to-people contacts. There can be no disagreement with her vision premised on incremental confidence-building. However leaping from this to a “Grand Bargain” approach to cover Kashmir and Siachen is a lunge too far. What were after all the Tashkent Agreement of 1966 and the Simla Agreement of 1972 if not failed attempts at comprehensive peace? In the first India handed back the vital Haji Pir Pass and in the second allowed the outstanding issues to remain on paper. Verbal undertakings if any were buried with the ouster of President Ayub Khan and the hanging of Prime Minister Z. Bhutto. It is again Mr Kissinger who said that hope is not a policy. Nor is solar power to Dr Singh’s ancestral village in Pakistan a harbinger of a de-radicalised Pakistan, which will only happen if more Pakistanis show the resolve of Imran Khan, particularly those in power, while Indians put their house in order.

The writer is a former
secretary in the external affairs ministry

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