by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th Nov 11
Is Pakistan already a basket case, a country captured by militarized radicals and a radicalized military, and bent on self-destructive confrontation with India? Is North Korea-style containment the only answer to Pakistan’s propensity for the export of terrorism and nuclear proliferation? Or might engagement yet catalyze the resurgence of a decency that lurks, barely seen, behind Pakistan’s resentful façade and its tendency to blame others for all the ills that beset it?
That was a key topic of discussion at the think tank conference that I attended in Stockholm over the weekend. Opinion was near unanimous that engagement had to continue. This is hard to dispute; the Pakistani state cannot be allowed to shoot itself in the head because the region will then have to deal with an unusually large and toxic corpse. What worried me, though, was the logic invoked by our western co-participants --- including serving officials of the US Department of State --- to justify continued engagement. Too much pressure on Pakistan would push it into China’s arms, said one. Another argued that America could not countenance a return to 2001, when a decade of sanctions had engendered such a wide divide that there was nobody in Islamabad who one could pick up the phone and talk to. Sanctions don’t work, said another, overlooking their vigorous implementation against nearby Iran.
These are hardly good reasons to continue engaging Pakistan. Had Washington had a phone number in the wake of 9/11, which it could dial for a cosy “Hi, Pervez” chat, Pakistan might not have supported Washington so vigorously in the crucial period that was to follow. What elicited Pakistani cooperation was the placing of an official call and Richard Armitage thundering down the line at General Pervez Musharraf that he had two choices: unconditional support, or the Stone Age again. Nor is the China analogy valid; Beijing is hardly sitting with open arms, one of them clutching a chequebook, waiting to sign the enormous cheques that America has been doing for decades.
Nor was there much clarity on the modalities for engaging Pakistan. It was left to a prominent Indian analyst (Sorry, no names, Chatham House Rules were invoked) to advocate a rational basis for engagement: the replacement of rhetoric about partnership, with a more coldly transactional approach. In this, every release of funds or assistance would be conditional upon Pakistan’s implementation of specific counter-terrorism measures or steps to bring down the levels of radicalization. A transactional approach would confirm the aam Pakistani’s worst apprehensions about American exploitation of Pakistan, but is really the only option.
Furthermore, the engagement of Pakistan, would have to be underpinned by a strong element of coercion for Islamabad to treat it seriously. But traditionally this coercive role has been arrogated to India. In multiple crises over preceding decades, Washington has held the Indian sword over Pakistan’s head, forcing Islamabad into desired actions through the threat of Indian military retaliation. Once US aims were achieved, pressure was mounted on New Delhi to avoid a crisis (usually phrased in apocalyptic terms like “nuclear Armageddon”).
This has hardly been useful for improving relations between India and Pakistan and it needs a major re-evaluation. Going by the Pakistani cabinet’s recent decision to liberalise trade with India, and the increasingly optimistic statements from New Delhi and Islamabad, it would appear that India-Pakistan relations today are significantly less chilly than a year ago. Even the signing of an India-Afghan strategic accord elicited no more than a mildly worded caution from Islamabad. It is not a coincidence that such a détente-of-sorts comes at a time when western powers, particularly America, have themselves taken to upbraiding Pakistan for its support to terror. With America now leading a global chorus painting Pakistan as a sponsor of terrorism, New Delhi for the first time has the luxury of restraint and behaving like the South Asian regional power that it has long aspired to be. Enhancing this extravagance is the visible upturn in India’s relations with long-estranged neighbours, notably Bangladesh and Myanmar.
New Delhi’s comfort levels are also rising by growing Indian capabilities in forestalling and reacting to terror attacks, a rising number of which are springing from India-based groups rather than those operating directly from Pakistan. And with violence levels in Kashmir also falling, India’s smile no longer comes through gritted teeth.
If the western powers, especially the US, believe that Pakistani insecurity from India lies at the root of its historical reliance on sub-conventional forces (terrorist and militant groups) and non-conventional power (nuclear weaponry) it can no longer leave the high-decibel highlighting of Pakistan’s follies to India alone. The new pattern of engaging Islamabad --- and there must be both engagement, and a new pattern --- cannot rest any longer on Indian outrage and western indifference. If the international community sees a problem, it must highlight it and deal with it without firing their guns from Indian shoulders.
After a decade of close US engagement of Pakistan, and the resulting crisis in their relations, it can be ventured that even India is better positioned to generate a positive influence in Pakistan. In the immediate future, India can plan to engage Pakistan through trade, through people to people contacts and eventually meaningful dialogue on the political issues that divide them. The west must prosecute its own engagement of Pakistan, with inbuilt incentives and disincentives for the outcomes and pitfalls that it envisages.