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Back to square one, again

After an initial phase of obfuscations, denials and bizarre flip-flops, Pakistan seemed to offer the promise of cooperation. The admission of Kasab being a Pakistani national was the much-needed start, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2009, 12:50 IST

I hope I’m wrong but it seems increasingly certain that India and Pakistan are hurtling towards a stalemate. And this time, neither side may be able or willing to break it.

After an initial phase of obfuscations, denials and bizarre flip-flops, Pakistan seemed to offer the promise of cooperation. The admission of Kasab being a Pakistani national (even if the country’s National Security Advisor was sacked for saying so) was the much-needed start. So was the public announcement by the tough talking Interior Minister — Rehman Malik — that the government was seizing control of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s offices. 124 of its members, he said, had been arrested, even if Hafiz Saeed — chief patron of the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba was merely under house arrest. India said the steps, though “far from satisfactory”, were still significant. It seemed as if both sides were tentatively walking back from the brink.

So, what has changed? Why does it look like both countries are standing once again at the precipice of no return and looking down into an abyss of darkness?

The ‘foreign hand’ theory being bandied about in the Pakistan media and also by one of its diplomats is probably what changed the rules of the game. When the Pakistan High Commissioner to Britain went on record to say that their investigations ruled out Pakistani soil being a base for the attacks, the fragile equilibrium was shattered almost instantly. He even implied that India’s evidence may have been fabricated. The envoy was immediately snubbed by the Pakistan Prime Minister, and India too wisely refused to rise to the bait. But the damage was already done. Since then persistent reports indicate that Bangladesh and al-Qaeda may well be apportioned a share of culpability. If this is indeed Pakistan’s official reply to the dossier of evidence, India will seethe with anger. DNA samples have already matched Kasab’s prints to those on the Kuber — the ship that brought in the 10 terrorists from Karachi.

But rage apart, realistically, there is little else India can do but take back its case to the global community and begin aggressive diplomacy all over again. Keeping a military option open on the table may be strategically necessary for the government to leverage international intervention. However, two months on — and on the eve of a national election — few believe this is either a practical or desirable option. Even the once much speculated about option of ‘surgical strikes’, now officially endorsed by the BJP, is privately dismissed by practitioners in the military. Precision strikes work only if they retain the element of surprise, they argue. In other words, the window of opportunity for this was limited to the first 24 hours after the attacks. But more importantly, they ask what it would achieve. If the aim is to strike at the root of terrorism, how would air strikes on camps — that can be brought down and re-located — change anything at all? Would it really make India any safer? War, quite frankly, is just not an option and we should accept that. To that end, India’s attempt to walk the diplomatic route was indisputably an example of maturity and restraint. But in the last weeks, has the frustration of not getting results made us trip over ourselves?

First, we sounded a bit confused about whether we were open to the accused being tried in Pakistan. Our official demand is that the masterminds of Mumbai must be handed over. Privately, the government knows this will never happen. The gap between rhetoric and realism began to manifest itself in public contradictions. Then began the confusion about whether Islamabad had made any response to the Indian dossier. No, nothing, said the Foreign and Home Ministries. Yes, they have asked us for clarifications and questions, said the National Security Advisor. Was the controversy just one of semantics to be blamed on the media? Or was the government sounding like it was speaking in multiple voices?

And finally, while strategic analysts even in Pakistan will admit that groups like the Lashkar are “clients and creations” of the country’s ISI, is it in our interest to go official with this accusation? The Prime Minister first alluded to the role of “some official agencies” and now India has categorically named the ISI. From a purely tactical point of view, will this help us? Of course it is true, but it also immediately raises the burden of expectation from the government. In other words, once the government blames a wing of the Pakistan government for being involved in the attacks, how does it justify doing business with the same government? Does it leave any wiggle room for manoeuvrability once State actors are officially blamed? What meaning can the anti-terror joint mechanism possibly have in the circumstances?

Perhaps the statements were an expression of an entirely understandable impatience. But how does India proceed against a country when even international think tanks like RAND Corporation argue that Zardari’s government “is either unwilling to comprehensively shut down” groups like the Lashkar “or, more likely, is seriously constrained from doing so by the military and intelligence agencies”.

Today, like never before, Pakistan’s internal turmoil could devour it in a swift moment of self-destruction. As this column
goes to print, A.Q. Khan, who — depending on your point of view, is the father of Pakistan’s nuclear programme or the man who sold secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea — has been released by the courts. In another corner, the ‘United Jehad Council’ has warned Islamabad that the Kashmir battle could change course to Islamabad, Peshawar or Lahore. Pakistan is being pulled in a million different directions that could erupt in its implosion. And this is India’s dilemma.

We need a safe and stable Pakistan. But we also need visible justice. And so far, neither can be guaranteed.

(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)

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