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Running out of time

world Updated: Mar 10, 2007 17:58 IST
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Given the visceral distrust that the intelligence agencies of India and Pakistan feel towards each other, the first meeting of the joint anti-terror mechanism has gone better than one could have hoped for.

What has made it a success is the commitment made to each other by the two countries - not wait for the formal quarterly meetings but pass on "information that needs to be conveyed on a priority basis".

They have agreed to help each other with ongoing investigations. If both sides adhere to these commitments, the wall of distrust that has divided them could come down in a matter of months.

Pakistan will disarm Indian sceptics the very first time it warns them of an impending terrorist attack.

India can reciprocate by doing whatever is necessary to convince Pakistan that it is not stoking the fires of separatism in Balochistan.

Neither should be hard to do, for they are in the interests of both countries. But they must be done soon because the window of opportunity for settling the Kashmir dispute and restoring a truly stable communal peace in the Indian subcontinent is about to close.

It is not closing because of the Congress' recent reverses in state and municipal elections.

Nor is it closing because President Musharraf will soon face an election in Pakistan and will be looking for ways to shore up his popu1arity.

It is closing because Pakistan is facing new threats to its stability and territorial integrity that could make it lose interest in a Kashmir settlement, if they develop further.

These threats arise from developments within the United States. Five years after its intervention in Afghanistan, its attempt to eradicate the Taliban has got nowhere.

The Taliban has revived and doubled the number of attacks upon US and NATO forces. It suffers from no dearth of recruits, and is awash in drug money from Afghanistan's 5,466-ton opium crop.

But US determination to eradicate it has not wavered. In its eyes, not only does the military operation have the sanction of the UN and NATO, but the Taliban made 9/11 possible and have, thus, to be punished to the fullest extent.

Cutting a deal with them is simply unthinkable. The Bush administration has therefore concluded that neither it nor NATO will be able to defeat it and restore peace in Afghanistan if Pakistan continues to give Taliban leaders sanctuary in Waziristan.

That is what the General Musharraf's Miranshahr agreement of September 5 with the tribal chiefs of North Waziristan, and a similar agreement a year earlier in South Waziristan have, in effect, done.

For the last six months, therefore, the US has been ratcheting up pressure on Musharraf to attack and destroy Taliban bases that it claims to have identified in Waziristan and Balochistan and to send in more of its army to seal the Afghan border.

The strategy it has adopted has evolved out of the working of American democracy and been used with devastating effect on other countries. It can be termed 'dancing on three legs'.

Pressure for change of policy first manifests itself in the media. The barrage of information it releases triggers demands for a change of policy in the US Congress.

That gives the administration the pretext it seeks to make the change. In this case, the pressure first became apparent in the American media when Musharraf arrived in New York for the UN General Assembly a few days after signing the agreement.

He was greeted by a spate of hostile articles that described the Miranshahr agreement as a deal brokered by the Taliban and a 'sell-out'.

Intelligence officials based in Peshawar and Islamabad suddenly could not stop talking to the media. Attacks by the Taliban, they claimed, had increased 300 per cent.

Pakistan's willingness to provide sanctuary was directly responsible. They forgot to mention that the figure referred to attacks since June, whereas the agreement was barely three-weeks-old.

In the months that have followed, the media have discovered Al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan that are training Europeans for attacks in Europe and the US.

Mullah Omar has been seen in Quetta and when an American journalist visited the city - defying a ban on media visiting sensitive areas - and got roughed up by the Pakistan police, it was interpreted as proof that the government was protecting Mullah Omar.

The second 'leg' came down on the ground with a thump on March 2. At a hearing before the US Senate, a parade of senior army officials claimed that they could not defeat the Taliban as long as Pakistan did not deny them sanctuary in Waziristan.

They claimed that they had the right to attack Al-Qaeda and Taliban camps inside Pakistan and were prepared to do so if Pakistan did not do it on its own.

Senators supported them from both parties. A11the while administration officials remained studiously silent.

The message to Pakistan was clear - attack the Taliban and close the border, or we will do it for you. The day when the US will put the third leg down - administrative sanction followed by military action - may not be far away.

The NATO and the US have come to know that a Taliban spring offensive is on the way. A senior Taliban leader boasted to Al Jazeera TV recently that they had recruited 6,000 fighters, including hundreds of suicide bombers, for the offensive.

Pakistan has vigorously refuted the US right to launch attacks on its side of the border with Afghanistan.

Its ambassador in Washington, Mahmud Durrani, has warned the media that doing this would not only seriously endanger Musharraf but would destabilise Pakistan itself.

But there has been no let up in pressure. On the contrary, Canadian PM Stephen Harper is the latest in a long line of leaders who have urged Pakistan to 'do more'.

The Pakistan government is unlikely to survive if the people see it as complicit in a US onslaught on Pashtuns in Pakistan.

Today there are well over 20 million Pashtuns in the country, and they make up more than a fifth of the army Feelings are already running dangerously high against Musharraf for having supported the US in other parts of the country.

Even moderate Pakistanis feel that they have already done more than their fair share. Eighty thousand Pakistani troops are manning 1,000 points between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Seven hundred have lost their lives. Pakistan has delivered an equal number of Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders and cadres to the Americans, including the Taliban's No 2, Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, only last week.

But control of the border is impossible because the same people live on either side. The US cannot ask Pakistan to commit suicide.

But Pakistan cannot expect the US and NATO to accept the present situation either. The only slim chance of finding a way out lies in India and Pakistan using their combined influence in Afghanistan to bring all parties to the conference table in the hope of brokering a new political settlement.

To say that this will not be easy is an understatement. But such an initiative stands a better chance of success than a military campaign without sufficient troops against an increasingly national Pashtun uprising, in one of the most difficult terrains in the world.

However, it cannot even get off the ground if Pakistan and India do not first bury their mutual mistrust.

India has made just this proposal forcefully to Pakistan on at least two occasions, but received no response.

Instead, sizeable sections of its military and intelligence still believe that India is its main enemy in Pakistan and its best course is to drive Indians out and ride to Kabul on the backs of the Taliban.

The US Senate hearing may finally have convinced the hawks that that option is firmly closed. President Musharraf has taken the warning seriously enough to summon six of his ambassadors for consultation including those in India, Afghanistan, Iran and the US.

The time is ripe for making a fresh start.