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Round One to Pakistan

A month after the recent Mumbai attacks, we’ve been forced into a situation where we can expect no cooperation from Pakistan and have to defend ourselves against charges of forcing war on the region, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 28, 2008 13:30 IST
Vir Sanghvi

Are you as surprised as I am by the war hysteria that suddenly seems to have become the defining feature of India-Pakistan ties? In the aftermath of 26/11, many of us took pride in the maturity of the Indian reaction. Even though we knew quite quickly that the attacks were the work of terrorists based in Pakistan, Indians refused to give in to the knee-jerk response to retaliate.

We had telephone intercepts that demonstrated that the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Tayyeba was behind the attacks. Phones recovered from the dead terrorists offered proof of regular calls to Pakistan. And Ajmal Kasab, the one terrorist to be captured alive, soon confessed to his Pakistani origins.

There were two ways we could have responded to this mountain of evidence. The first was to say that this proved that Pakistan was involved and to then launch surgical strikes on terrorist training camps in Pakistan. The second was to buy Asif Zardari’s claim that while the terrorists may have had Pakistani origins, they had no state sponsorship. In fact, said Zardari, the same terrorists were the ones who had killed his wife and launched attacks within Pakistan.

I reckoned we had been reasonable in choosing the second path. We rejected the war option and, somewhat surprisingly, Indian public opinion did not demand a retaliatory strike.

Instead, most of us trusted Zardari, or at least gave him the benefit of doubt, believing that he was sincere when he talked about wanting peace with India and appreciating his offer not to launch a first nuclear strike made at the HT Summit.

Plus, we had faith in America. Many foreign policy experts told us that America was on our side; that Pakistan was so indebted to America that it could not afford to offend Washington; and that diplomatic pressure from the likes of Condoleezza Rice would ensure that Pakistan cracked down on the groups that had organised the Bombay attacks.

One month after those terrible incidents, two things have happened. The first is that Pakistan has gone back on its early willingness to help India get the perpetrators of the terror strikes. An offer to send the ISI chief to India was hurriedly withdrawn and the current position of the Zardari government appears to be that there is no evidence at all of any Pakistan involvement in the attacks. Even Ajmal Kasab, whose Pakistani origins have been unearthed by Pakistan’s own media is sought to be denied his rights as a Pakistani citizen. We do not know who he is, says Islamabad, and we don’t believe that he is a Pakistani.

The second development is that while we have congratulated ourselves on our restraint, Pakistan has built up the war hysteria on its own anyhow. Each day the Pakistani people are told how an Indian attack will be repulsed. More troops have been moved to the border with India. Pakistan Air Force aircraft fly sorties over major Pakistani cities. And Pakistani ministers accuse India of needlessly targeting Pakistan.

In effect, therefore, we have the worst of all worlds. We avoided threatening war in the hope that the Pakistani government would cooperate in the investigation. But all offers of cooperation have been withdrawn and far from helping us, Islamabad is dedicating its energies towards claiming that India is lying about Pakistani involvement.

Further, the very war hysteria we hoped to avoid by counting on Zardari has been created anyway — not by us, but by Pakistan.

In effect, we’ve been forced into a situation where we can expect no cooperation from the Pakistan government while simultaneously defending ourselves against charges of seeking to invade Pakistan and force war on the region.

How could things have gone so wrong?

I am now coming round to the view that they’ve only gone wrong for us. They’ve gone very right for Pakistan. Islamabad has got exactly what it needs, and what it always wanted.

Consider the situation that Pakistan found itself in a few months ago. The US was ready to commit more troops to Afghanistan and pressure was growing on Pakistan to clear its Pashtun areas of Taliban and al-Qaeda elements. The Americans believed that Osama bin Laden was probably hiding in those areas.

Thus far, Pakistan had been able to go along with American ambitions for the region but it was now reaching the point of no-return. First of all, the Taliban are an ISI creation. Pakistan was one of the few countries in the world to recognise the Taliban government in Afghanistan. So it has no desire to entirely crush the Taliban, either in Afghanistan or in its own tribal areas.

Secondly, the Pakistani army is about three-fourths Punjabi and one fourth Pashtun. This means that it will happily kill Baluchs, Mohajirs and Sindhis but that soldiers have no stomach for fighting Pashtuns. Already, there have been an unprecedented number of desertions from the army.

Thirdly, even if Pakistan did want to impose order on the tribal areas, the reality is that the region is ungovernable and has been semi-autonomous even during the British Raj.

And finally, there’s the Obama factor. The President-elect has been threatening to get tough with Pakistan and even launch US strikes on its soil.

Faced with this combination of unfavourable circumstances, what could Pakistan do?

Well, here’s one scenario. It is no secret that elements in the army and the ISI have links with extremist organisations. Why not urge one of the these organisations to strike at the heart of the Indian state?

India would react by threatening military action. Pakistan would then claim that it was under threat, would shift troops from the tribal areas to the Indian border and tell America that it was unable to be its ally in the war against terror because its own security was under threat from India.

No war would result, of course, because the Americans would not let two nuclear states go to war. But as tensions mounted, Pakistan would say to Washington that the time had come for a more permanent solution to its problems on the eastern border. It could only take the politically unpopular step of acting against the Pashtuns and the Taliban if it could show its people that Pakistan had got something in return.

And what would that something be? Well, what about a Kashmir settlement? Why didn’t the US appoint a special envoy and force India to negotiate some kind of joint sovereignty? That way, the Pakistani masses would believe that the US had Pakistan’s interests at heart and would support a war in the tribal areas.

Two things could go wrong with this scenario. One, the Americans could refuse to play ball. In which case Pakistan could sulk and refuse to continue the operation in the tribal areas claiming that its genuine grievances were being ignored. Which suits Pakistan, anyway.

Or, India could refuse to take the bait and would shy away from threatening war — rendering the whole scenario inoperative.

If the second happened, Pakistan would claim that India had threatened it anyway. Perhaps a menacing phone call from Pranab Mukherjee could be manufactured. Perhaps there could be so much hype that a war hysteria was created regardless of the absence of provocation.

If you think that this scenario is far-fetched, then consider what’s happening today. The operation in the tribal areas has stalled. The Taliban have sworn to back the Pakistan army against India. Troops have been moved to the Indian border. The incoming Obama administration is talking about appointing a special envoy for India and Pakistan.

And forget about acting against those who organised the Bombay attacks. Pakistan isn’t even willing to hand over Dawood Ibrahim or Masood Azhar. Moreover, Washington seems largely content with this state of affairs.

I don’t want to sound like a pessimist or a war-monger — especially since I have always applauded New Delhi’s moderation and restraint — but it is beginning to seem to me that Pakistan has out-manoeuvered both India and America.

We won’t get cooperation or justice. And we may have to battle American demands for negotiations over Kashmir.

Where does that leave Asif Zardari? Where he always was: a smarmy, crooked irrelevance in a country run by the army.

And where does that leave India-Pakistan relations? Well, where they’ve always been. In a dangerous place.

And India must confront an enemy it can never trust.