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New rules of engagement

While this is hardly the time for file pushing on Siachen or Sir Creek, don’t be surprised if you see some inventive thinking from Manmohan Singh’s team on Pakistan in the near future, writes Barkha Dutt.

columns Updated: Jun 05, 2009, 23:38 IST

Before Husain Haqqani became the big shot that he is today in the Pakistan government and within the power circles of Washington, he was a friend to many of us on the Islamabad beat. Haqqani — today Pakistan’s adroit Ambassador to America (and some say, the actual author of Zardari’s op-ed flourishes) has already lived more lives than most of us can ever manage or fathom. He’s worked for both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto, taught international relations at Boston University and (during the Pervez Musharraf years) penned a definitive book on the peculiar relationship between extremist groups and Pakistan’s power establishment.

It’s his book (Pakistan, Between Mosque and Military) that holds a mirror to what he would call his country’s past, and others would argue, is a prophetic forecast of its future. I still remember when Haqqani dropped by at the office a few years ago to give me a signed copy. We discussed the seeming invincibility of Musharraf over coffee — Haqqani was an outspoken critic — and agreed to keep in touch. And then, fast forward to 2007. I was standing in the courtyard of the Bhutto House in Larkana; Benazir was dead, and her assassination was also the death warrant for the once-unshakable General who had ruled Pakistan for seven years. There in the heart of Sindh, I met Farah Ispahani, Haqqani’s wife, now a spokesperson for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). We spoke briefly about Haqqani but mostly about how Pakistan may never be the same again.

Earlier this month, I chanced upon a New York Times profile of Haqqani, which described him as a “a silver-tongued interpreter in public of his country’s bewildering politics but also a relentless, unyielding defender of Pakistan’s image and reputation”. Richard Holbrooke, the article said, thought Haqqani was, “among the most skilled ambassadors, I have ever seen.” All the buzz around him made me delve back into the book he had gifted me way back in 2005.

As Indians learn to say Swat like they once used to say Lahore and we debate whether the Taliban will take over Pakistan, Haqqani’s book is a brilliant read. It may have been written in another time and context — certainly the Ambassador can’t embrace many of his own propositions today — but the arguments made in it speak to the very fundamentals the world is interested in today. Will the Pakistan military ever be committed to a real crackdown on militants? Is jihad an extension of State policy?

Writing about how the Pakistan military had developed a “strategic commitment to jihadi ideology,” Haqqani had argued back then that the “Musharraf government remains tolerant of remnants of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, hoping to use them in resuscitating Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan.” His immaculately researched book points out that the threat of militant groups had in a sense been used by the country’s agencies to maintain their own entrenched hold over the power structure, weaken political parties and guarantee that foreign aid never dries up. “Jihad is on hold but not yet over,” Haqqani wrote, “Pakistan still has an unfinished agenda in Afghanistan and Kashmir.” Admittedly, this was all four years ago, and today, the author writes many persuasive and hard-hitting columns on how determined the crackdown in Swat is, and how Washington must shed its reluctance in providing arms and funds to help. In a recent interview, he argued that the bombings in Lahore and Islamabad were proof of this new commitment. “The extremists are feeling the pressure which is why they are hitting at the government and its personnel in cities,” he said.

So where does all of this leave India? It’s quite clear that Pakistan is going to be the new government’s biggest foreign policy challenge. And given that the Congress was acutely fearful that 26/11 could cost it the election, the Prime Minister will tread very cautiously. In a week in which Hafiz Saeed, the chief ideologue of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba walked free (though Islamabad says it will appeal against the verdict), it would seem that things aren’t going to get better in a hurry. And yet, negotiators within the government are quietly coming around to the view that an alternative framework needs to be built within which India can engage on its own terms. “Not talking,” said one source “isn’t really something that can be called policy.”

While no one I have spoken to is advocating a resumption of the “composite dialogue” in its conventional form, there are fresh evaluations of how there is no longer “one Islamabad” that India is dealing with. Those framing policy are confronted with the complex reality that there are multiple Pakistans and India may soon have to find a way of dealing with all of them. There’s the Pakistan President, and now there’s also the Pakistan Prime Minister (increasingly seen as a separate and influential power fount), and then of course there is the military, the ISI, and in some parts of the country, tribal chieftains.

Despite all the hysterical headlines on the absence of an India-specific clause in the Pakistan aid bill (the draft merely says that aid can’t be misused for fomenting terrorism in “neighbouring countries”) that’s not what has New Delhi worried. But there is, perhaps an understanding that the trail India walked on after the Bombay attacks has now run cold.

And while this is hardly the time for file pushing on Siachen or Sir Creek, don’t be surprised if you see some inventive thinking from Manmohan Singh’s team on Pakistan in the near future. For example, what if India were to ask for a summit on terrorism? Pakistan, which has often described terrorism as a common enemy, could hardly decline. So, while you won’t see any big-ticket meetings or bureaucratic normalcy return to the India-Pakistan equation, you could see a new engagement written in a different, firmer language from the past. I wonder, what Pakistan’s persuasive Ambassador to America would say to a proposal like this. But then, the Husain Haqqani we remember is never short of a smart answer.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

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