Sunday, September 24, 2006

Help Wanted?

Byline by M J Akbar: Help Wanted?

The key to understanding the latest turn in Anglo-American policy towards India and Pakistan is that recent incidents of terrorism in Britain owe as much to local Muslim anger about Kashmir as they do to Iraq or Palestine. A good percentage of British Muslims are Mirpur-Kashmiri in origin, with links to jihadi groups in Pakistan, and provide an abundant source of British-Muslim suicide terrorists.

Tony Blair, anxious to sew some of the tatters on his reputation before he leaves office, is keen these days to address the "root causes" of Muslim anger, and Kashmir is right up there along with Palestine. He has made a well-advertised trip to Palestine. Kashmir is more complicated. But by any logic, George Bush is the better interlocutor, since he has excellent personal relations, as well as political leverage, with both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pervez Musharraf.

This perhaps was why it was Bush who raised the issue of Kashmir during his talks with Pervez Musharraf on Friday 22 September in Washington, rather than the other way round. It is logical for Musharraf to bring Kashmir up. Why did Bush do so? I am not revealing any state secret. This comes straight from Bush himself.

This nuance has not yet reached the attention of Indian public opinion, which is understandable. It also seems to have eluded the Indian establishment, which is less explicable.

During his comments to the media after the talks, Bush said that he "admired" Musharraf’s leadership and praised him as a symbol of moderation, according to the news agencies, AP and AFP. He then added that he "raised the Kashmir issue with the Pakistani leader". Bush went on to ask Musharraf: "What can we do to help? What would you like the United States to do to facilitate an agreement? Would you like us to get out of the way? Would you like us not to show up? Would you like us to be actively involved? How can we help you, if you so desire, to achieve peace?"

It was an interesting, and even remarkable, array of options. Musharraf did not tell us what his answer was, but he certainly would not have kept silent. Instead of Pakistan asking for America’s help, it was America asking what it could do to help. We will learn about the implications of these remarks when they begin to take effect on policy. Musharraf informed Bush that his meeting with Dr Manmohan Singh in Havana had been "excellent" and that India and Pakistan were "moving on the Kashmir dispute especially". The story from Delhi so far has concentrated on the "joint mechanism" for a concerted effort between India and Pakistan on terrorism. The stress has not been on Kashmir, but maybe Musharraf understands what happened differently.

Bush linked Kashmir and Palestine. He agreed that the US could not impose a settlement in either dispute. But, he added, "We can help create the conditions for peace to occur. We can lay out the vision. We can talk to world leaders — and we do."

The September pirouette began a few days earlier with a slight thud, almost inevitable since Bush and Musharraf have to negotiate through so many thickets to find common ground. But it quickly picked up momentum and indeed some style, since both knew what they were doing. That their meeting ended in laughter and expressions of admiration says a great deal about the confidence Bush has in Musharraf, who has proved a master strategist. Who else but Musharraf could sell the deal he made with the Taliban as another tactic in the war against terror? And Bush bought it.

But was it a one-way swap? Did Bush have something to sell as well?

Pakistan has been in the news in an American campaign season (the elections to Congress in the first week of November) for the worst reason on Bush’s long list of problems: Osama bin Laden.

Five years ago, America went to war against a Taliban-led Afghanistan to find Osama bin Laden, the self-declared mastermind of 9/11. If the Taliban had handed over their permanent guest to America, the case for an invasion would have collapsed. Five years later, Osama is still free, and questions are being asked. On the weekend before 9/11 I happened to be on a CNN programme called At War This Week. I pointed out that while America, despite satellites and the most sophisticated military and intelligence presence in the region, claimed that it could not find Osama, Osama seemed perfectly capable of finding America whenever he wanted. He had just reasserted this ability by sending another tape, replete with his familiar themes, to Al Jazeera in the week before the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Did these tapes reach Doha on Alladin’s magic carpet? It was common knowledge that the tapes went from Osama’s residence to Qatar by old-fashioned, almost antique, Cold War tradecraft: letter box drops and a courier system. If British and American intelligence agencies, honed on Cold War espionage, could not discover a fairly porous human chain, then one had to suspect either their ability or their intention. It is a tough choice.

Such were the dilemmas that persuaded Wolf Blitzer of CNN to ask Bush, during an interview, whether he would send American troops in pursuit of Osama if he received reliable intelligence that Osama’s safe haven was in Pakistan. Bush replied in the affirmative. Was he taking Pakistan agreement for granted, or had a deal already been made with Musharraf that American troops would be permitted to use Pakistani soil for their operations? Musharraf objected to Bush’s unilateral decision, but this clearly had no impact on the bonhomie of their meeting. American troops are already in Afghanistan, with close communications support from Pakistan, and the border isn’t etched on stone.

Diplomacy is about give and take, and Musharraf has taken back with him to Islamabad some forward movement on Kashmir from his linked trip to Havana and Washington. The sentence he used at the White House — "we are moving on the Kashmir dispute especially" — was not accidental. The use of "especially" was particularly deliberate. We are not aware of the full meaning of this word. Perhaps we will discover that after the first phase, that of a "joint mechanism", is in place.

The "joint mechanism" between India and Pakistan on terrorism opens the way for a bilateral body that has the ability to monitor and investigate terrorist incidents in Jammu and Kashmir and the rest of India, since this mechanism has been designed to allay Indian concerns about Pak support for terrorism in India. This is an extremely bold move, since Delhi has co-opted the country it has accused of terrorism into the solution of the problem. The presence of Pakistan police officers in Delhi and Mumbai, and certainly Srinagar, will arouse unprecedented levels of interest. The reaction of Indian intelligence officers will be even more interesting.

No one sane would want to sabotage a solution to the Kashmir problem, and if George Bush and Tony Blair can help attain one, then may they get half of the Nobel Peace Prize money that awaits Musharraf and Manmohan Singh. The tough part is the definition of a solution, even after we have managed to define terrorism. The official Islamabad line, repeated as frequently as you want to hear it, is that the violence in Kashmir is not terrorism but a war of liberation. Words words words: and how much blood flows between them…

The disconcerting fact about the Havana deal is that it is a marked departure from the line that Delhi has been taking for at least a year. The immediate reaction to the Mumbai train blasts, for instance, was to blame Pakistan. Whether wise or not, that certainly begs a question: what has happened in the weeks since that incident to persuade Dr Manmohan Singh that Islamabad can be a partner in the solution to our most difficult and painful problem? Every citizen has the right to know the answer, and judge its credibility, otherwise suspicion will provide its own set of answers. Before a solution obtains the grandeur of a multilateral approval, or a bilateral agreement, it must pass the sieve of a national, unilateral acceptance.

The first base is home, and it always comes first.

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