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Friendly foe

The Havana agreement is a means to prevent peace talks from being derailed, writes Prem Shankar Jha.

india Updated: Oct 03, 2006 04:49 IST
Prem Shankar Jha
Prem Shankar Jha

The agreement to establish a joint mechanism for cooperation between Indian and Pakistani intelligence agencies to combat terrorism has evoked reactions that range from scepticism to outright disbelief. For more than two decades, Pakistan’s ISI has been sheltering insurgent groups like the World Sikh Organisation, the Babbar Khalsa, the Panthic committee, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the Harkat-ul-Ansar, the Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. It has also given them support to launch terrorist attacks on India. How does Manmohan Singh believe that this particular leopard will change its spots?

The question is perfectly valid, but the knee-jerk answer that most of our security analysts have already given — that this is one more grandstanding exercise by Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to which our Prime Minister has again fallen prey — is an immature, ignorant reaction based on the assumption that the future can only be a continuation of the past. History is replete with examples to the contrary, when severe exogenous shocks have forced a country or its government to radically reassess its options and consciously choose a different track. India has not gone through any such shock, but Pakistan has. The Havana agreement reflects this rethinking in Islamabad and the PMO.

Musharraf signalled the change when he said, in an interview given to AG Noorani in Mainstream, that intelligence agencies tend to have agendas of their own and need to be more closely monitored by the two governments. Behind this lay a fairly prolonged consideration, including much back-channel communication, on how best to prevent the peace process from being derailed. This issue came to a head not with the July 11 bomb blasts in Mumbai, but more than a month earlier, when the police and intelligence agencies foiled a fidayeen attack on an RSS training camp in Nagpur. That abortive attack had followed spectacular terrorist attacks in Delhi and Varanasi and had been traced back by the Intelligence Bureau to the LeT. Had it succeeded, it might have triggered a communal bloodbath that would have drowned the peace process.

The Nagpur attempt played a significant part in scuttling Singh’s projected visit to Islamabad in June or July. Singh made it clear that even if he accepted Pakistan’s claim that it was neither behind the attacks nor able to control the perpetrators, the wave of anger that another outrage would unleash in India would deprive him of the consensus needed to enter into any agreements with Pakistan. The July bombings confirmed his foreboding. Amid demands to ‘do to Pakistan what Israel was doing to Lebanon’, he was forced to discontinue the peace talks with Pakistan.

The Havana agreement is a product of the rethinking that began then. Neither country wanted the peace process to break down. But it could not restart till they had found some way of breaking the stranglehold that jehadi organisations were developing upon it. Pakistan had pointed out repeatedly that it would only be hurting itself if it simultaneously made concessions in search of peace in Kashmir, and sponsored terrorist acts that could tear the subcontinent apart. It had also demanded that it not be judged till India put its willingness to foil terrorism to the test by sharing information with it. The Havana decision was a response to this demand and a way of putting its intentions to the test.

Ever since, Singh has been parrying a spate of questions on how the intelligence sharing will work. He could hardly do otherwise for only time will tell. For the intelligence agencies of both countries, this marks a huge break with the past. Intelligence officers who have spent their entire lives thinking of the other country as ‘the enemy’ will have to part with their most valued product to it. Both countries will, out of necessity, move cautiously. Just how far and how fast they move will depend on their perception of what is to be gained from the exchange of information. In this, despite its checkered past, Pakistan may be ahead of India today. The reason is that since 9/11, it has been far more in the firing line of global power politics than India and, therefore, has been forced to redefine its national interest more drastically.

Indians see Musharraf’s decision to join Bush’s war on terror as an example of Pakistan’s adroitness in exploiting its geo-strategic location. Within months, the US’ need for a base from which to launch its assault on Afghanistan enabled Musharraf to pull Pakistan out of its morass of international debt, re-equip its ageing armed forces and reopen the faucet of international economic assistance. But to a majority of the Pakistanis, these looked like sops from a country that had forced them to surrender their sovereignty at the point of a gun. Had the Afghan war been followed by peace, buttressed by an effective post-war reconstruction programme, Pakistan would have emerged an outright winner.

But the US’ determination to catch Osama bin Laden, and its consequent decision to carry on the war against the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan and the adjoining tribal areas of Pakistan to the bitter end, has transformed the situation into one of mounting peril for Musharraf, and for Pakistan’s very survival. For, as the war has intensified and Nato has joined in, as remote control killing has multiplied with little concern for precisely who is being killed, the anger of the Pashtoons of the region has mounted steadily. What began as a war against the Taliban has metamorphosed into a war against the Pashtoon people. And Pakistan has found itself on the wrong side.

After losing 700 soldiers in a reluctant attempt to cooperate with the US in the hunt for Osama, Musharraf was already changing tack in Waziristan, restoring the age-old entente with the tribal chiefs and, in effect, opting out of the hunt for Osama. Then the Pakistan army killed Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti and very nearly triggered a Baloch national uprising. The province-wide unrest that followed brought Pakistanis face to face with the dangers of dealing with political problems through force alone.

Balochistan is too small to become another Bangladesh. But it is large enough, its people warlike enough and its terrain sufficiently forbidding to bleed the Pakistani State into bankruptcy and worse. Musharraf has wisely decided, therefore, to eschew confrontation in favour of accommodation. In this mood, flirting with a confrontation with India is the last thing on his mind.

However, the most important change in Pakistan has been in its perception of the US. For five decades, Islamabad felt empowered by its alliance with the US to confront India and try to wrest Kashmir from its grasp. Today, the US is an unwelcome guest which controls a large part of its land and air space, listens to every word that anyone speaks on a mobile phone or sends by fax or e-mail, and makes no secret of its readiness to bomb Pakistan’s vital nuclear installations if by mischance it begins to pass into the hands of radical Islamists. The only way to avert this threat is to make Pakistan both prosperous and free of terrorist bases.

Despite these powerful reasons for cooperating with each other, the intelligence agencies of the two countries will not do so till each is convinced that the other has stopped trying to unravel its nationhood. Indians have made their demands clear on innumerable occasions, but Pakistan, too, has to be reassured, beyond reasonable doubt, that the R&AW is not fomenting trouble for it in Balochistan and southern Afghanistan. Both countries, therefore, have many more miles to go.

First Published: Oct 03, 2006 04:49 IST