Aug 30, 2008

Columnists - Barkha Dutt

These days, many Indians sneer at the idea that a strong, stable Pakistan is what the doctor would prescribe for our better health as well.
The very concept is often dismissed as a tired old cliché propounded by foreign policy wonks and candle-wavers at Wagah.
Instead, popular commentary now suggests that a divisive, chaotic and Taliban-ridden Pakistan has reduced it from being a dreaded enemy to a pathetic irrelevance. India, or so goes the argument, is too pre-occupied with her own aspirations on the global stage to care about a pesky, unstable neigbbour.
In fact, right through the pro-azaadi protests in the Kashmir valley, many liberals lamented that India had failed to ‘sell’ itself better as the obvious option for those who had to choose between a flourishing, secular democracy and a country in deep economic and social meltdown.
It may be true that the old schizophrenic mix of love and hate that marked our response to Pakistan for years has now vanished. We no longer vacillate between congenital sentimentalism and automatic suspicion about our northern neighbour.
The intensity of our cricket confrontations has long faded. And the Punjabi obsession with Pakistan has slowly given way to indifference, even ennui, with what goes on across the border. Interestingly, on my several trips to Pakistan, I find a similar indifference on the other side.
Even the Kashmir violence did not grip public imagination or define drawing-room debates in Lahore and Islamabad. Instead, like us, Pakistan’s people are entirely consumed by their own issues. And while we may still hyperventilate over Musharraf’s exit, India rarely, if ever, makes it to the front pages of their newspapers these days.
But, I think it is naïve, misplaced and ignorant to get too complacent or to gloat about the turmoil within Pakistan.
Lazy snobbery may push us to mock Islamabad’s tortured tryst with democracy. But our scornful one-upmanship is really beside the point. As I watched the dramatic midnight footage of a dead body dangling from the house stormed by militants in Jammu, I wondered, who could India complain to? Would we pin the blame on the army, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) or the Pakistan People’s Party? Now that bombs go off in Pakistan’s northern areas with almost the same frequency as they do in Iraq, we have to ask ourselves what meaning the joint anti-terror mechanism set up two years ago can possibly have?
The ISI, often described as a ‘state within a state’, is so menacingly autonomous that President George W. Bush had to turn around and ask the new Pakistan Prime Minister who controlled the agency. The civilian government’s feeble and clumsy attempt to bring the ISI under its control had to be abandoned overnight after a terse intervention from the military.
Asif Ali Zardari, the man almost certain to be the next President of Pakistan, may now retain the controversial powers to dissolve the country’s Parliament. Yes, Pervez Musharraf had the same overweening authority, except for one crucial difference he was, in the end, the army’s own man. If Zardari becomes President, he will also be the most powerful ‘civilian’ leader the country has had in 61 years. He was never the army’s favourite and you can be sure that Pakistan’s military will not step back and allow him grand, unchecked authority.
For India this means we may have to keep parallel channels of influence open — both with the civilian coalition and with the military. But with entirely apolitical troops on our side and authoritarian soldiers on theirs, direct contact between our militaries doesn’t work well for foreign policy either.
Perhaps, it is this messy uncertainty of Pakistan that makes policy-makers in the Indian government nostalgic about a deeply unpopular dictator. Right now, platitudes aside, they have no idea how to engage with the multiple power centres in Pakistan. In other words, Pakistan’s mess, in many ways, is also our headache.
And for those who believe that a weakened Pakistan means India gets to have the upper hand in tackling terrorism, well, think again. The shadowy, unidentified terrorists, who held little children at gunpoint in Jammu, are symptomatic of the ambivalent power structures on the other side. Did the ISI order them across? Did the Pakistan rangers provide them covering fire? Were they rogue elements who authorised themselves in their pursuit of a personal jehad? In Pakistan, all of these options are possible.
To get a sense of the ominous and lethal shadow boxing that is driving and destroying Pakistan, you only have to read Ahmed Rashid, the brilliant Pakistani scholar, in his book, Descent into Chaos. Rashid’s first international bestseller on the Taliban was written well ahead of the curve, before the world — especially America — gave a toss about Afghanistan or Islamic fundamentalism. It really became a bible only after the 9/11 attacks. His second book could be chillingly prophetic as well.
He meticulously documents how for seven long and violent years, America, Pakistan and Afghanistan have double-crossed each other with a fatal outcome: the Taliban is stronger than ever before. Rashid is scathing about the military’s two-faced policy on Taliban terror under Pervez Musharraf, offering hard evidence on how both Taliban and al-Qaeda guerrillas were aided by the ISI. The White House comes under equal attack for being so fearful about the manufactured war in Iraq that it declared the battle in Afghanistan over before it had truly even begun. The result is there for the world to see, as Rashid writes in the introduction to his book — “a nuclear armed military and an intelligence service that have sponsored Islamic extremism as an intrinsic part of their foreign policy”.
And, while Pakistan’s people are very worried, so should we be.
(Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV)

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