Sunday, October 01, 2006

Outbreak of Peace

Byline by M J Akbar: Outbreak of Peace

Any outbreak of peace between India and Pakistan should be handled with almost as much care as an outbreak of war. Paradoxically, now that full fledged war, of the 1965 or 1971 kind, has been made infructuous by nuclear weapons, peace might be a more dangerous game to play than war. Failed wars can be halted by a ceasefire, as has been the story from 1948 to Kargil. How to handle a failed peace?

Peace has erupted before, sometimes more suddenly than war; sometimes in quiet incremental doses. The Shimla Agreement of 1972 did not bring peace. It merely purchased the indifference of uncertain combatants. General Zia ul Haq was rather more successful with his mildly escalating injections of normality (cricket, interviews, a better visa regime), but then he had a vested interest in honey. He could not afford a second front on the east while engaged with the Russians in the west. Moreover he used treacle to camouflage support for secession in Punjab. Zia was a master at eating the cake he was offering.

The last great outbreak of peace was at Agra. The Agra Summit is proof of that ancient law: the higher the expectations, the greater the post-conjugal depression. President Pervez Musharraf reveals the bitterness that failure at Agra generated in his memoirs, In the Line of Fire (quite a bit of it, incidentally, friendly fire). Agra failed because India and Pakistan had not checked whether the words they were using meant the same thing to both sides. That problem remains.

I don’t know if Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Musharraf consulted the same dictionary at Havana. There was the usual triumphalism when they agreed upon a "joint mechanism" to fight terrorism. The problem is not about "joint", however leaky the glue might be, or "mechanism", however mechanical it might become. I do hope that the two great minds of South Asia have reached consensus on what they mean by terrorism. It would be a pity, wouldn’t it, if Dr Singh began preparing his bags for a trip to Kashmir only to find that General Musharraf wanted him to visit Baluchistan? One man’s terror, after all, is another man’s intelligence agency.

President Musharraf did find time for some serious diplomacy in the course of his book tour through America and Britain to promote his memoirs. We know that he and President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan are President George Bush’s right arm and left arm in a principal theatre of war. Despite the mellowing effects of a two-and-a-half-hour dinner between just the three of them — trust me, it doesn’t get cosier than that in international affairs — Musharraf and Karzai could not bear to shake hands in public. That is how corroding a mismatch in the definition of terrorism can be. Musharraf had prepared for this American visit well, visiting Karzai in Kabul and meeting Dr Singh in Havana. But Karzai must have found it difficult to shake hands with a man who had just shaken hands with the Taliban in Waziristan. General Musharraf was not impelled into the Waziristan deal by sentiment but by, to use a favourite expression of his, "ground realities". Imperatives are different in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. To find common ground therefore is tough.

All politics may not be domestic, but most of it is. Bush is concerned about the interlinkages of South Asia because Afghanistan has returned to haunt him on the eve of what could be his most difficult election: the November polls for seats in the Senate and House of Representatives. If he loses control of either House, he could be subject to the same merciless, intrusive enquiry regime that hobbled Bill Clinton. Bush does not have the ballast to push through his agenda without the help of Republican majorities on Capitol Hill.

Till last week, all the cheerleaders of the Indo-US nuclear deal were warming their hands in anticipation of applause for the successful passage of the bill through the Senate. Such is the sincerity of cheerleaders that passage itself is considered a glorious victory, no matter how heavy the toll that is extracted along the way. The deal got stuck on domestic compulsions like illegal immigration from Mexico and a bill to define the degree of torture that will be permissible to the CIA in its war on terror.

Sincerity was the great strength of George Bush with the American voter. But sincerity is no substitute for failure, and bad news is coming from all sides. Much in the spirit of "Wanted: Dead or Alive" Bush has conducted war on the principle that ends justify the means. But the means are becoming unacceptable to America, with its fundamental and Constitutional commitment to liberty. Details of such means are popping up everywhere, and doing the President no good. His friend Musharraf has, for instance, revealed that the Pak government has been indulging in a bit of bounty hunting on the side, collecting cash in return for suspects. For a government to trade in the lives of its own citizens comes close to sordid. What might be understandable if not acceptable in tribal behaviour is unbelievable as government policy.

Bob Woodward, who helped Bush with his last book, published just before the presidential elections two years ago, has added fuel to the Bush fire with his latest offering, State of Denial. He reports that the White House has been deliberately and consistently shutting out the truth about the width and depth of Iraqi resistance. Apparently, there is one attack on foreign troops by insurgents on an average of every fifteen minutes. Spin can delay judgment, but not deny it. Ideally, Bush would hope to postpone the judgment till some other Republican can suffer the consequences. But the omens are not too good. Bush is calling all favours, largely because there will not be a next time on his watch.

Alas, good news is not available in a refrigerator; nor can you order it as happily as fast food. The South Asian larder, sadly, is depleted and the fires are low in the kitchen. With the best of intentions, chefs Singh and Musharraf may not be able to deliver sustenance. Given a choice between worry over Baluchistan and dealing with Taliban, Musharraf will understandably choose to quell a secessionist movement in his country before going to war with insurgents across his border. These are the famous "ground realities".

The return of the Taliban, and the corresponding rise in casualties, is slowly manoeuvring its way to the top of the American political agenda in an election season. Bush needs to hear that conflict is on the mend between allies (all three nations, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India are allies), that terrorists are on the run and problems that breed anger are being addressed. A death rattle in Iraq was injurious enough to the opinion polls. An echo in Afghanistan could be fatal.

Under such pressure, India and Pakistan may be tempted to wave a Band-Aid as the cure for cancer. Indians and Pakistanis have suspended disbelief often in the past to indulge the delusions of passing leaderships. Push our people too hard, and they may soon suspend all belief in peace.

That would be a fate worse than war.

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