Byline by M J Akbar: Old Trotsky had a point
The best thing to have happened to Home Minister P. Chidambaram's proposed trip to Washington, in the dying days of a disappearing administration, is that it has been postponed. We all know that Chidambaram is a good lawyer when not engaged in politics, but what precisely did he hope to achieve in the last week of George Bush's unlamented rule?
He was ostensibly going to present evidence on the role of Pakistanis in the terrorist attack on Mumbai. Is there any paper in his travelling files that is so secret that it could not have been handed over to the FBI in Delhi? Chidambaram was going to talk, and therein lay a minor opportunity and a major danger.
Chidambaram might be justified in believing he has a persuasive tongue, but he might have returned with a problem, instead of solving the one he went to pursue. To start with, Washington does not need to be convinced that there are terrorist outfits in Pakistan that have India in their gun sights. They know this already. They deal with these groups, and have the most extensive intelligence on them, information built up not just during the current war in Afghanistan-Pakistan, but over at least two decades. According to one American assessment, Osama bin Laden has placed India at the top of the list of the world's soft targets, now that America has hardened its security regime. Washington has already accepted Delhi's line as credible. So the only subject for real discussion is follow-up action. This is where the dangers lie.
Chidambaram would have been the last foreign politician to do business with the Bush administration. Was this fortuitous or deliberate? Deliberate, I reckon. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is still bathing in the glow of a special relationship he manufactured with George Bush, and believes that Bush will be as loyal to him as he has been loyal to Bush. After all, in that unique opinion poll taken by Dr Singh, every Indian loves Bush. But Bush has no real authority to take any serious decisions, apart from whom to invite for a picture opportunity. Every strategic matter now awaits the arrival of Barack Obama on 20 January. There is no foreign policy issue more important on Obama's table than the Afghan war. His views are known: a big stick in one hand, and lots of carrots in the other. The "surge" has already begun, and by the middle of this year America will have 63,000 troops in Afghanistan. While the Taliban is being "tamed" on the battlefield, bribes will be liberally distributed to tribal chiefs to wean them towards the side of American civilisation. Pakistan is an invaluable ally in both operations. Its forces will be asked to sanitise those regions in Pakistan, which are a base for Taliban, while its famous Directorate of Inter Services Intelligence (popularly known as ISI) will be invaluable in identifying the recipients of carrots. Obama will need Pakistan far more than Bush did.
No deal with Delhi, nuclear or strategic, can change a basic fact. As long as America is in Afghanistan, India is a friend and Pakistan is an ally.
This alliance has been integrated into firm institutional relationships, beginning with the Cold War when Pakistan bought into Pentagon goodwill by offering Peshawar as a base for spy reconnaissance missions across the Soviet Union on U2 planes. This was further honed during two Afghan wars, against the Soviet Union and now the Taliban, into an intimate interaction between intelligence services. The CIA and the ISI are sister agencies. The ISI first flourished when it became the major conduit for funds and arms to the Mujahideen against the Soviets. It now has some 10,000 regular employees on its payroll. Washington will not jettison this equation because of a terrorist attack in Mumbai. Organizations like the Lashkar-e-Toyeba have emerged from the murk in which a war with parallel, and occasionally shifting, loyalties is being fought.
The head of the ISI is clearly the second most powerful general in the Pak Army. Former ISI chief Ashfaq Kayani was fortunate enough to be in the right place when Pervez Musharraf first fell from grace and then fell from power. When the present chief General Ahmed Shuja gives an interview it is front-page news.
Washington gives the ISI and Pakistan a great deal of leeway in deference to ground realities. It understands that the political structure in Islamabad is wobbly at best, and it will do nothing to weaken it further by backing such Indian demands as may be unpopular in Pakistan. The FBI has already said that it is not interested in picking up suspects from the Lashkar-e-Toyeba, noting that Pakistan is quite capable of trying them in its own courts.
Washington could also place linkage on the table in any talks with Delhi on Pak-sourced terrorism. We have, with great difficulty and greater diplomatic consistency, finally managed to convince America and Europe to treat Kashmir as a bipartisan issue after the disastrous reference we made to the United Nations in the winter of 1947-1948.
Pakistan has responded to our diplomatic offensive after the Mumbai attack by seeking to once again internationalise Kashmir through the "root causes" argument. Islamabad's line is not very complicated: terrorism is fuelled by despair over Kashmir, so if you want to end terrorism, you have to solve the Kashmir dispute.
Washington would, in all likelihood, have raised this during talks with Chidambaram since it has accepted Pakistan's argument that if the war in Afghanistan deserves the full attention of Pak armed forces, then its security concerns on the eastern front must be neutralised by a settlement of the Kashmir problem. Ergo, settle.
There is a signature petition being circulated in the Kashmir valley at this moment seeking Obama's intervention, amid expectations that the new President will be receptive. He comes to office riding on a promise ("Yes we can"), but without that optimism pinned to any delivery system. It might take him 18 months or two years to realise that in Kashmir, "No we can't". It would be naïve to offer Washington an inroad into the Kashmir dispute before experience in office has taught Obama that intellect is not necessarily synonymous with wisdom.
The Soviet Union's first foreign minister and Marxist ideologue Leon Trotsky had a message that is still relevant to new leaders bubbling with hope and audacity: "You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you." Israel and Palestine have already started a war that is interested in Obama. He would be wise to limit Afghanistan's battlefields to either side of the Durand Line. Even good intentions can engender a slip into the treacherous quicksands of South Asia that would send us all into a toxic swamp.
I never thought I would write this so soon, but one is already turning nostalgic for General Musharraf: he understood the healing powers of the status quo.