In the absence of a long-term strategy, foreign-policy swings are inevitable. The pendulum has moved back and forth on India’s Pakistan policy with such frequency in the past eight years since Atal Bihari Vajpayee rode a bus to Lahore that any pretence of consistency in approach has long been lost. Yet, even by that standard, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s surprise embrace of military-ruled Pakistan as a fellow victim of and joint partner against terror puts India out of sync with the growing international focus on that country’s descent as the fount of transnational terrorism.
Just when Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf has come under mounting pressure from his chief benefactor, America, over his unwillingness or incapacity to crack down on terrorist radicals in his midst, the first meeting of the joint Indo-Pakistan anti-terror mechanism is being held in Islamabad from Tuesday. That meeting, dissonantly signifying that the victim has joined hand with the assailant, is strikingly at odds with the stern warnings a stream of US officials have delivered to Musharraf, including two secrecy-shrouded visitors to Islamabad — Vice President Dick Cheney and Defence Secretary Robert Gates.
As in May 2001 when the sphinx-like Vajpayee blithely helped lift Musharraf’s international-pariah status by inviting him all of a sudden to Agra, India is out of step again. It has eased the pressure on Pakistan just when the rest of the world is beginning to exert pressure over its metastasizing terrorism. Since Singh made Pakistan a joint partner against terror, Western officials increasingly are speaking up about the Pakistani terrorist threat.
In January, then US National Intelligence Director John Negroponte testified that Pakistan is the hub of a global al-Qaeda web and “home for some top terrorist leaders”. Now his successor, Mike McConnell, says the US is “very worried” that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri are helping establish Qaeda training camps in Pakistan similar to those that operated pre-9/11 in Afgha-nistan.
Earlier, Eliza Manningham-Buller, the head of British domestic intelligence, said that terrorist plots in Britain “often have links back to al- Qaeda in Pakistan” and that such links are “on an extensive and growing scale”. In the face of rising terror flow to Afghanistan, General Karl Eikenberry, the departing commander of coalition forces there, suggested last month that the US launch “a steady, direct attack” against terrorist command and control sanctuaries in Pakistan.
Now a senior US military official, General Douglas Lute, has disclosed that US forces in Afghanistan are engaging in hot pursuit of terrorists across the border into Pakistan. Lute contended that “we have all the authority we need to pursue, either with artillery fire or on the ground, across the border”.
As the third largest recipient of US aid, including counter-terrorism subsidies that alone totalled $ 4.8 billion between 2002 and 2006, Pakistan has become critically dependent on such assistance. Washington is now playing to that vulnerability.
It, however, has no intent to dump Musharraf. Just as it helped keep the jehad-spewing General Zia ul-Haq in power to take on Soviet forces in Afghanistan, it needs a pliant ruler in Islamabad today because it employs Pakistan as a gateway to military operations in Afghanistan, a base for clandestine missions into Iran and a vehicle for other geopolitical objectives, including vis-à-vis India.
Although President George W Bush has made the spread of freedom a rallying cry, the democracy plank is merely to target regimes that defy the US. In the case of friendly but dictatorial regimes, like in Pakistan and most Arab nations, US policy recognises that such governments can further American interests only if they stay insulated from the popular pressures of a democracy.
But what has India to gain by lending respectability to the Musharraf regime? Promoting regional peace is a sensible policy track. Yet let’s be clear: can New Delhi make peace with the Pakistan military whose power and prerogative flow from the absence of peace with India? This institution still values terrorist proxies to wage an unconventional war against India.
Make no mistake: the fight against international terrorism is very much tied to the future of Pakistan and the central challenge that country faces — to move away from militarism, extremism and fundamentalism, and toward a stable, moderate state. Today Pakistan is disparaged as “Problemistan”, “Terroristan” and “Al Qaidastan” — epithets that underline its potential threat to global security. Bush recently called Pakistan “wilder than the Wild West”.
Pakistan can deal with its central challenge only by building genuine democratic processes. Yet Bush and company, giving primacy to narrow, short-term geopolitical interests, still rely on the very institution that is part of the problem — the Pakistan military. They can do so because the US is distant and the fallout of their policy is still largely confined to the region. Recent US statements on Pakistan’s terrorist infrastructure have all been about its impact on Nato operations in Afghanistan, with not even a passing reference to the effect on India, suffering the world’s highest rate of terrorism.
To be sure, Bush is only emulating his predecessors who found Pakistani military rulers politically expedient to advance American interests. Sadly though, Vajpayee and more so Singh, in their exuberance to curry favour with the US, sought to align Indian policy with US policy on Pakistan in some critical respects. The Agra summit, for instance, was designed to bring Musharraf out of the international doghouse, with the White House taking New Delhi by surprise by peremptorily announcing its dates.
If India today finds itself internationally out on a limb, the blame lies with its mushiness on Musharraf. Smarmy zeal sans strategy also denies it geopolitical opportunity from the Baluchi insurrection and a resurgent Pashtun nationalism on both sides of the contentious Durand Line.
One expected New Delhi to insist that the US, in response to Musharraf’s dubious anti-terror record, suspend the sale of lethal, India-directed weapons to Pakistan. But mum is the word. Indeed such is the salient incongruity that a US protégé, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaks plainly about Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism while India toasts the terror sponsor as a partner. Is it thus any surprise that India is not even among the 12 nations identified as victims of terror in the White House’s national-security strategy report?
Few States put as much faith in diplomacy alone as India does. Yet Musharraf has a track record of yielding only to direct pressure. Within hours of Cheney reading the riot act to him, Musharraf had one of the Taliban’s top three leaders arrested. That man, Obaidullah Akhund — like other terrorist leaders captured in Pakistan after 9/11 — was found comfortably living in a Pakistani city!
Tellingly, all the terrorist figures captured and transferred to US authorities thus far have been non-Pakistanis. Pakistan’s home-grown, al-Qaeda-linked terrorist militias — cyclically changing their identities — continue to operate openly.
New Delhi must summon the vision and the will to do what is strategically right on Pakistan to help protect security at home. India needs to side with the Pakistani people and their democratic aspirations, not with a dictatorship that already has a lot of blood of innocent victims on its hands through a relentless proxy war.