The main question being asked about the Sharm-el-Sheikh joint declaration is: why did India allow language to severe the link between terrorism and dialogue? While Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made it clear that this doesn’t absolve Pakistan from taking action against those guilty of the 26/11 attacks, it is evident that a decade-old diplomatic bond between the two issues has been diluted. This is a remarkable political gamble. He seems to be taking Pakistan’s repeated promises that it will take action against militants at face value. The joint statement is replete with lines about this, as well an acceptance that “terrorism is the main threat to both countries”. But Islamabad is not tied to specific goals or actions. This is the crux of the gamble: a belief that Pakistan’s attitude to terrorism has changed enough that it is in India’s interest to break off terrorism from bilaterals and Kashmir.
Terrorism could not float off on its own before because Pakistan saw the militants as an instrument to wrest Kashmir from India. Over the past several years, Pakistani leaders have slowly inched towards the view that sponsoring terrorism is a strategy of diminishing returns — destructive to Pakistan’s international standing, useless in blocking the geopolitical rise of India and, most importantly, ruinous to their own country’s social and political fabric. President Asif Ali Zardari is the first Pakistani ruler to see the jihadis as a cancer needing excision. There is evidence that the Taliban at least are no longer seen by the Pakistani public as gallant heroes. Some of this negativity is rubbing off on Kashmir-oriented terror groups as well.
Recognising that Pakistan has changed in the past five years is good strategic thinking. However, another changed reality is that the country lacks any centre of authority. Mr Zardari is a president with minimal power as is evident in his vain attempts to put those responsible for 26/11 behind bars. Mr Singh may have given him political room to take action, but it remains to be seen whether Mr Zardari can exploit it. Islamabad’s weakness also raises questions about its ability to stop a solo terrorist attack. That is probably the greatest gamble of all: in case of another attack, India’s diplomatic options will be negligible.