THE MOST DANGEROUS ARGUMENT






My recent visit to Canada and the United States coincided with the assassination of the al-Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, in Abbotabad by US Special Forces, and its aftermath. Anger over Pakistan’s duplicity was pervasive. A sense of closure and even relief was evident in the US, but there was apprehension that this would not mean the end of terrorism. There was expectation of revenge attacks.

Most analysts were convinced that the Pakistan army and the ISI had been fully complicit in providing refuge to OBL. There were differences of opinion on how Pakistan should be dealt with. However, few suggested that economic and military assistance to Pakistan should be curtailed or eliminated, though there was demand for greater accountability. It was argued that supply lines through Pakistan remained critical to ISAF operations in Afghanistan. Pakistan could also exert influence on the Afghan Taliban, with which the ISI has maintained intimate links over the years, to facilitate a political settlement in Kabul while restraining attacks by them on ISAF forces across the border.

Therefore, it is clear that the OBL affair is unlikely to change the transactional relationship the US has built up with Pakistan over the past several decades. Strategic misalignment between them will continue to be trumped by tactical exigency on both sides.

What should be of growing concern to India is a parallel argument which seeks to “explain”, and sometimes justify, Pakistan’s long-standing and continued use of cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy. In the blizzard of commentary about the OBL affair, there are, invariably, references to the Pakistani obsession or paranoia about a threat from India; that exaggerated or even misplaced as this perception may be, it is, after all, ground reality.

It is argued that the already large and growing asymmetry between India and Pakistan in all indices of power is what Pakistan seeks to address through reliance on cross-border terrorism, as well as augmenting its already significant nuclear arsenal. Without saying that cross-border terrorism against India is justified, nevertheless, it is often asserted that unless India is leaned upon to settle the Kashmir issue, draw down its armed deployment on the India-Pakistan border and reduce its presence and activities in Afghanistan, the US and the West will not be able to persuade Pakistan to abandon its role as a breeding ground for terrorism, which threatens Western interests in Afghanistan and in their own homelands.

It is not what the US and the West have done to alienate Pakistan that is the cause of the latter’s recalcitrance, but Indian “obstinacy.” The fact that the America is the most hated country in Pakistan, that American and Western soldiers are being killed by Taliban forces, aided and abetted by Pakistan, and that US largesse has made no dent in Pakistan’s negative perceptions, are all minimised as contributory factors while highlighting the so-called India factor.

In Agra in 2001, Musharraf had brazenly described terrorism in Kashmir as a “freedom movement”. There were sympathies with Pakistan’s view in several Western capitals. This was no longer possible after 9/11 later that year. The world belatedly endorsed India’s long-standing assertion that no cause, however great, justified the killing of innocent men, women and children. What we are witnessing again is a creeping tendency to seek justification for Pakistan’s misdemeanours, which can only undermine the global war on terrorism.

A view is beginning to crystallise that the way to political settlement and stability in Afghanistan and the amelioration of the fundamentalist and terrorist threats to the West, could be facilitated by persuading India to become invisible in Afghanistan and resolve the Kashmir issue to Pakistan’s satisfaction (for anything less would hardly make a difference). Taken to its logical conclusion, India may have to cut itself into smaller pieces so that Pakistan feels safe! What makes India feel safe or unsafe, and that India, too, may have legitimate security concerns, does not seem to matter.

A typical example is the latest issue of The Economist (May 21, 2011) which has the header item, “The world’s most dangerous border.” Remember how during his visit to India in March 2000, President Clinton had used a similar doomsday description of the India-Pakistan border? This formulation is a pernicious one, because its spreads the blame even-handedly on both sides, rather than acknowledge the obvious source of the threat itself. The Economist says, with categorical certitude, that the Americans have made a mistake, “to see Pakistan in the context of the fighting on its north-west frontier, and thus to ignore the source of most of the country’s problems, including terrorism: the troubled state of relations to the East”. Please note the telling phrase “including terrorism”. The article makes another bizarre deduction: “If Pakistan’s world view were not distorted by India, it might be able to see straight on terror”. Really? The Economist’s solution? America should lean on India to “show restraint in and flexibility on Kashmir.”

What a far distance we have travelled, since 9/11 brought a long overdue clarity on the nature of terrorism as an unmitigated evil. What The Economist is suggesting is that we reward Pakistan’s use of cross-border terrorism as an instrument of state policy, rather than make it abundantly clear that terrorists and states that provide safe haven to terrorists risk being drummed out of respectable company and be put on ice as a rogue state. Instead of using “extra clout” on India to make concessions to Pakistan, should not the “extra clout” acquired as a result of the OBL affair be used with Islamabad to compel a change in its behaviour?

The Economist faults the US for its civil nuclear agreement with India, because it “destabilised things in 2008”, heightening Pakistan’s fear of India. Is this any different from Chinese arguments that its decision to build two additional nuclear reactors in Pakistan, in defiance of NSG norms, is justified by the need to maintain a “balance” in the subcontinent?

Indian diplomacy is thus faced with a serious challenge. It must not allow the old India-Pakistan hyphenation to again become a major constraint. We should make it clear that India’s vital interests, both on Kashmir as well as on the larger issue of combating terrorism are not up for being used in a cynical attempt to assuage Pakistan. Our pursuit of closer relations with Afghanistan has its own independent logic. It is not up for trade with Pakistan or anyone else. There should be a categorical and powerful rebuttal of the revisionist arguments which seek to undermine the global consensus on unreservedly fighting the forces of terrorism. The world cannot be made safe from terrorism by making India unsafe.

(This article was first posted online in the Indian Express website on 27 May 2011)
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