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Uday Abhyankar: For India, a year of talking to Gilani, but with eyes on Kayani

Uday Abhyankar 

Our prime minister recently described Pakistan Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani as a “man of peace”. The prime minister may be justified in his assessment; after all he has met Mr Gilani rather more often than you or I. But it is not Mr Gilani’s pacific nature that is important — but rather his will and capacity to deliver peace.

The fact is that Pakistan’s security and foreign policy, especially towards India and Afghanistan, is determined not by the civilian government but by the military, and in particular by the Pakistan army and Chief of Staff General Kayani. President Asif Ali Zardari’s reported heart trouble will lead to further questions about his government’s authority. Indeed, the subservience of Pakistan’s civilian leadership to the military was again highlighted a couple of weeks ago by the swift dismissal of its ambassador in Washington, who had displeased the military in the so-called Memogate affair. And the Pakistani army chief, by either function or nature, is not presumably a man of peace.

The Pakistani military’s pre-eminent position in the country’s political life, its pre-emption of a disproportionate amount of public money, and the economic empire it has carved out for itself in the last six decades largely depends on its claim to act as the bulwark against an allegedly hostile India. A good relationship with India would threaten all this. So it is hard to see why the army would welcome or allow it.

Still, a dialogue with Pakistan’s civilian leadership may bring some low-level results on matters in which the military has little interest: Better atmospherics, easing of visa restrictions and maybe MFN treatment. But on the core issue of controlling terrorist groups that the Pakistani military has nurtured as its proxy tools, or bringing those responsible for the attack on Mumbai to justice, we should have low expectations. Unfortunately, in the dialogue with Pakistan, those who are willing — Gilani and company — are not able; and those who are able — General Kayani and the army — are not willing.

We have long and stridently complained about terrorism emanating from Pakistan. For reasons of their own, the US, major European countries and others have ignored our complaints. However since discovering Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad, the assassination of former Afghan President Rabbani and the attack on the US Embassy in Kabul, American has shifted. Senior US figures such as the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — as well as Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress — have been explicit about the Pakistani Army/ISI’s role in nurturing terrorist groups. Secretary Clinton’s warning about keeping snakes in the back garden could hardly be clearer.

The United States will continue its pressure using all the carrots and sticks it has, to persuade the Pakistani military to combat terrorist groups operating on its soil, the Haqqani network in particular. Its Nato allies are likely to do likewise. Whether such pressure is successful is uncertain — and the recent bombing of the Pakistani border post, killing 24 soldiers, will complicate its efforts. Yet the US does have strong levers, including an estimated $2 billion annual military aid, and Pakistan’s dependence for spare parts and technical support for US-supplied weapons systems.

The US pressure will make it more difficult for the Pakistani military to address the unenviable if self-inflicted challenges it faces: To hunt with the (American) cops while running with the terrorists; managing the civilian leadership while dealing with India, Afghanistan and China; and simultaneously trying to ensure that Pakistani society doesn’t disintegrate completely under the onslaught of the terrorist and fundamentalist forces unleashed since the regime of General Zia. Quite an agenda. The Pakistani military is on an unsustainable path, likely to lead to a messy and possibly violent dead-end. Whether the military sees it coming in time to avert it remains to be seen.

In the meantime, we have to protect our own security and interests. Hopefully, since the Mumbai attacks, our security agencies have become more effective and better coordinated. The time is right for further intensification of cooperation on intelligence matters with the US and others, so that we get actionable intelligence that could be used to prevent new attacks.

There is also considerable concern about Pakistan’s nuclear assets and the possibility that al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated terrorist organisations might get hold of them. That would pose a danger not only to India but to all of Pakistan’s neighbours, including Iran and the Arab countries in the Gulf. Our cooperation with friendly intelligence agencies should start giving greater attention to this issue, which could pose a grave threat in the coming years.

We also have to keep some lines of communication open. This provides a rationale for maintaining the dialogue with the civilian leadership. As our prime minister has said, you can’t choose your neighbours. But let us do this with our eyes wide open. Don’t expect substantial results on core issues any time soon. Not, in any case, soon enough to bring the Nobel Peace Prize to any of the present actors.

First Published: Sun, December 18 2011. 00:01 IST
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