Know your friends

Author - Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Posted on - 13 August 2013

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This article was published on ‘The Indian Express’ on 13th August 2013





Engage with those who want peace in Pakistan,so as not to cede room to those who don’t

The killing of five jawans in Poonch last week is yet another instance of the “death by a thousand cuts” bleeding of India that has long been a key strategic doctrine of Pakistan. Or at least of the “deep state” that exerts enormous influence behind the scenes in that country,irrespective of whatever constitutes the publicly visible government of the day.

The frustration and anger that we feel in India at repeated betrayals,both big and small,of countless promises of peace from across the Line of Control is,of course,understandable. From Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s bus diplomacy being followed by Kargil,to Pervez Musharraf’s assurance of no longer allowing Pakistani territory to be used for terrorism being followed by 26/11,the pattern has remained the same.

Nevertheless,the recent past had seen a decline in cross border infiltration and attacks,attributed by many to Pakistan’s increasing preoccupation with its own crumbling internal security. Widely regarded as the global epicentre of jihadist terror outfits,Pakistan’s past has finally caught up with it,and the chickens have been coming home to roost in ever-larger numbers.

Near civil war conditions in parts of Pakistan have forced many politicians,civil society activists,and even sections of their armed forces,to acknowledge what the world has been telling them for years — that their existential threat is not India,but their own fraying internal compact. It is in this context that there have been renewed efforts at rapprochement,both by official engagement on issues like trade as well as by track two dialogues.

The message coming out of Islamabad,for at least a couple of years,certainly post Abbottabad but even before,has been that it sees the writing on the wall and wants normalisation of relations with India. And even more importantly,that the new initiatives in this regard had the blessings of the army’s General Headquarters.

But it is on this last point that India’s defence and foreign policy experts have not been convinced. Their overwhelming consensus has been that while Pakistan’s army may have indeed given its nod for de-escalation of tensions with India,for now it must be treated as only a tactical accommodation by it,rather than a fundamental reorientation of its India strategy. They have,therefore,advocated a cautious,incremental approach.

In the meantime,Pakistan has achieved a historic milestone: a transition from one civilian government to another via elections. This is no small matter,but may not be sufficiently appreciated in India,for it is the norm to which we are accustomed. Equally significantly,the new prime minister,Nawaz Sharif,has the credentials of having partnered Vajpayee in pioneering the modern era of Indo-Pak peacemaking efforts.

There are those who take that with a pinch of salt,particularly due to General Musharraf’s allegation that Sharif was in the know on Kargil. But even they would acknowledge that irrespective of whether Sharif okayed Kargil or not,Musharraf has always been its champion; and it was the former who paid a price for that misadventure,not the latter. Be that as it may,Sharif has been making all the right noises about India,both before and after his election.

Now,with a rise in cross border attacks again,there is a corresponding and justifiable rise of outrage in India,with loud demands that talks with Pakistan be suspended. The Indian government has been wrong footed in Parliament and is groping for answers. Despite some commentators’ cool-headed advice that dialogue with Pakistan should continue,realpolitik will dictate a slowdown and perhaps even a halt,at least for some time.

The single biggest factor in India’s choices seems to be that most of us see Pakistan as cohesive in its antipathy towards India. Most Indians simply don’t know enough about the deep schisms within Pakistani society or about their civilian government’s tenuous authority. And even among those who do,a common attitude is that it’s their problem. Some even maintain that if we must choose between dealing with disparate stakeholders,it should be with the army.

Therein lies the rub. The raison d’etre of the army enjoying an astoundingly privileged position in Pakistan — including,for instance,controlling many large enterprises listed on the Karachi stock exchange — has been the premise that India is continually plotting its destruction. A fundamental change in that narrative would perforce open a Pandora’s box from the Pakistan army’s point of view. Thus,while it is clear that today the army has the ultimate authority to sanction and maintain détente along the LoC,it can hardly be in its interest to actually press for permanent peace.

In line with the historical experience of true democracies almost never going to war with each other,our best hope of achieving a sustainable peace with Pakistan lies in democracy finally establishing permanent roots there. And that means engaging with their legitimately elected civilian government. Perhaps not immediately,particularly in the aftermath of yet another outrage,but soon.

Whether the Poonch attack was directly conducted by army regulars,or by “non state actors” in army fatigues,is immaterial. The latter would not be feasible if their training camps across the LoC were to be shut down. Perhaps this was a nudge from Pakistan’s deep state to its civilian government to make them keep seeking its blessings. Or perhaps it bodes something more ominous: a correction of the “tactical,not strategic” de-escalation with India,now that the US is significantly winding down its presence in Afghanistan.

In any case,it is no simple coincidence that this provocation comes yet again when a civilian leader has held out an olive branch. It is in India’s long-term interest that democratically elected governments in Pakistan gradually gain ascendance over the army. Treating that as their internal affair is not in our national interest.

Remarkably for a country so divided,there is near unanimity across Pakistan’s political spectrum for normalising relations with India. That this view might not be shared deeply by other Pakistani players should help us understand who our friends and enemies really are. Not engaging with those who feel the need for peace is to cede ground to those who don’t.