Monday, October 13, 2008

Why Zardari said what America wanted to hear

Why Zardari said what America wanted to hear
By M J Akbar

No passport has yet been devised that can take one easily across the borderline of fear. Pakistan used to fear annihilation by India; now it fears the hegemony. India used to fear invasion across the Line of Control in Kashmir; now it fears the export of terror.

One nation's freedom-fighter can, of course, be a neighbour's terrorist. Pakistan may sincerely want peace with India, but it still has not reconciled itself to peace in Kashmir. Politicians, bureaucrats and generals sitting across a walnut table are not the only ones who determine the management of visceral fear. The street also has a say, the Pakistani street being a less than melodious orchestra of mohalla, madrassa and media.

Might I offer a suggestion for the new kid on the block, Asif Zardari, once "Mr Ten Percent" and now the honourable President of Pakistan. The next time he feels inclined towards discussing Kashmir in an interview, he should outsource the interview to his spokesman. It will save him the bother of claiming he has been misquoted or misunderstood.

Is there any rational explanation for what Zardari definitely told the Wall Street Journal - that those who had picked up the gun and bomb in Kashmir were terrorists, and that India has never been a threat to Pakistan?

Part of the reason lies in the fact that he was speaking to a conservative American paper. Zardari obviously shares one trait with India's Prime Minister, who in September offered the true love of every Indian to George Bush, the most hated president since polls began to measure such sentiments. Zardari was telling a Republican paper what he thought the White House wanted to hear. But this is useful only if it meshes into a larger framework.

Washington is reorienting its policy towards the entire region between Kabul and Delhi, and the basic foundations are being repositioned for a new architecture. At the centre of this shift is recognition that the failing war against Afghanistan was deeply flawed by an error of judgement.

It should have been against al-Qaida, fountainhead of terrorism, and not against Taliban, government of the Afghan nation. The determined Taliban have not only turned the flow of battle, but have emerged as champions of Afghan nationalism and good governance, compared to the utter corruption and incompetence of the Hamid Karzai regime. The British commander in Afghanistan, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, admitted in the first week of October that absolute military victory was impossible and that if the Taliban were prepared to sit across the table this "insurgency" could be concluded.

He was only making public a process that had already begun. Between September 24 and 27, King Abdullah hosted a dialogue between 11 Taliban delegates, two Afghan officials, a representative of Gulbuddin Hekmetyar and three others. The talks had the official backing of the British government, and the unofficial support of the United States. America and Britain are talking to those they went to war against after 9/11 in the belief that they were "terrorists". Their rhetoric still describes the Taliban thus.

It is clear that US and UK are trying to declare victory before they get out of a war they cannot win. But since America cannot be defeated by "terrorists", the Taliban will have to be redefined.
The Taliban are delighted to play ball. Mullah Mohammad Omar has conveyed, through his representatives at the Saudi talks, that Taliban was no longer allied with al-Qaida.

Pakistan has repeatedly been told by Washington to disassociate itself from terrorists, a tactic that has become second nature to the ISI. If Taliban can walk away from Osama bin Laden, then Pakistan should be prepared to abandon Kashmiri terrorists.

In an ideal Anglo-American scenario, the security gap left behind by departing Nato forces would be filled by an informal, if difficult, alliance between India and Pakistan. This cannot happen as long as Kashmir remains a source of conflict. Hence, a new arrangement for the region needs a resolution of Kashmir. This process cannot begin unless Islamabad decides that Kashmiri militants are not freedom-fighters. Once this happens, the status of Kashmir can be negotiated as long as the governments in Delhi and Islamabad are amenable to American "advice".

In an interesting twist of fate, Pakistan has now more to fear from terrorists on its west than from India. Pessimists have even begun to talk, albeit in hushed tones, of the possibility of a second partition of Pakistan, with the Frontier becoming a virtually independent region, under the control of Taliban-inspired Pushtun theocrats. It is only such a context that makes some sense of Zardari's assertion that the real threat to Pakistan is not from India. He is right, of course: India has never had any desire for any Pakistan territory, preferring to let Pakistan stew in the contradictions of its own politico-ideological concoction.

For Zardari, this would mean burial of the strategic legacy of another man he should hate with passion, General Zia-ul Haq, who led the coup against his father-in-law, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and later hanged him. Zia convinced his country that what had been impossible through conventional war could be achieved through unconventional means. It was an attractive proposition in the 1980s: Punjab seemed utterly vulnerable and it was obvious that India could not hold on to Kashmir if it lost Punjab. Zia, a packed package of craft, laid siege to India through terrorists, even as he wooed its opinion-maker elite with time, double-talk, carpets and silver teapots in the hope they would find rational arguments for abandoning the defence of Indian unity. Two decades later, elitist knees continue to wobble far too quickly in Delhi.

Zardari's first serious attempt to test the elasticity of Pakistan's thinking has rebounded: the elastic has snapped back sharply enough to loosen a molar or two. He could not recognize the power of the Pakistani street because he has never worked on it. He has usurped the authority of the prime minister and turned the office of the president, which he reached through an indirect election, into the centre of power. It was a constitutional coup, aided by a sycophantic political party and a fragile polity. But bribes and bullying will not alter the Pakistani's most durable article of faith, that Kashmir belongs to Pakistan.

One presumes Zardari has learnt a primary lesson: sometimes it is easier to get into office than to sit in it.

The American argument can be beguiling to Islamabad, that when a final prospect of peace is offered, the Indian elite will accept the compromises in geography necessary to make a Kashmir deal palatable to Pakistan. A trial run has already been established in the nuclear pact, where vital commitments have been sacrificed by Delhi and ignored by most of the Indian elite, whether in Parliament or press. Mediocre leaders have an almost incurable urge to "enter history" through a single triumph, even if this means tweaking the national interest here or there. Zardari seems to have bought into the American dream for South Asia.

But nations are not chess pieces which can be arbitrarily rearranged through clever moves. Rulers might dream of turning a pawn into a queen; in real life, kings end up as pawns much more easily.

Appeared in Times of India - October 11, 2008

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