Thursday, 21 May 2009

The Great Game Goes On

Imtiaz Gul is a reputed Pakistani journalist and the author of a book "The Unholy Nexus; Pak-Afghan relations under the Taliban.” In an interesting article published in the Dawn, Gul discusses the Pakistani establishment’s outlook towards the threat from Islamic fundamentalists and compares it with the threat from the east, from India. Gul speaks for the Pakistani establishment when he says that the bulk of Pakistan’s army is deployed on the Indian border because half of India’s strike corps is deployed close to the Pakistani border. Pakistan believes that India is pumping money into Balochistan, partly as pay back for past Pakistani interference in India. India is also ramping up its activities in Afghanistan, with whom its ties are getting stronger. For Pakistan’s officialdom, India is a mortal threat; the Islamic fundamentalists are not. For this reason, Pakistan is tempted to hang on to a few Islamic outfits, though Gul strongly argues that Pakistan should not do so since it makes Pakistan look volatile and weak.

Gul feels that Barack Obama and Gordon Brown overlook how India’s superiority over Pakistan shapes Pakistan’s threat perception. He argues that the West ought to allay the possibility of an Afghan-US-India alliance encircling Pakistan and ‘neutralise’ the threat to Pakistan from India if it expects Pakistan to throw its full might against the Taliban.

You can read Gul’s article here:

I believe Gul when he says that even at this stage, when the battle against Islamic fundamentalists is in full swing, Pakistan treats India as the bigger threat. As explained in this Time article two generations of Pakistanis have been weaned on a mix of hatred for India and the supremacy of Islam. The Islam practised in Pakistan used to be a lot more liberal than the austere version that has crept in of late. However, the Wahhabi version of Islam is Islam nevertheless and it is not easy for the average Pakistani to denounce it totally.

There is no doubt that Western countries will be very happy if India were to bend over backwards to make Pakistan feel secure. The million dollar question is whether India should indulge Pakistan. In realpolitik terms, what’s in it for India?

At present India seems to be in an enviable position. If India were to assist or continue assisting insurgents in Balochistan (I am only conjecturing, I have no way of knowing if India is actually doing this), Pakistan has two options. The first option would be to get an Islamic fundamentalist group to attack India. This would require Pakistan to provide weapons and training or at least a safe haven to a bunch of people who at present most probably hate the Pakistani government more than they hate India. The weapons are very likely to be used against Pakistan than against India. Also, if news of such activities were to become known, Pakistan would look mighty daft. The second option would be to assist a non-Islamic insurgent group fighting India. There are still a few left, mainly in India’s north-east. Since the first option doesn’t make sense, I assume Pakistan would go for the second option. However, the second option is not going to be particularly effective since Indian insurgents have a variety of sources to get weapons from and Pakistan is just one of them. Aid from Pakistan is unlikely to make a significant difference to the messy situation in India’s north-east.

Amidst all these Machiavellian calculations, is it possible to argue that India should go out of its way to assuage Pakistani concerns? For one, it would get India brownie points from the West. However, in these days when everyone talks of rising macho Asian powers, a pat on the back from the USA or UK alone cannot justify such an extremely vulgar display of altruism. Is it possible to argue that a strong Pakistan will serve India between better than a weak Pakistan and for that reason alone, India should go out of its way to help make Pakistan feel secure enough that it is able to devote all its resources to fight the Taliban?

Unfortunately, as explained by the well-known Indian journalist Vir Sanghvi in this article a strong Pakistan is no guarantor of peace. Sanghvi has argued that India should go out of its way to keep Pakistan weak, that the traditional argument that a strong and prosperous Pakistan is vital for India’s security and prosperity has been proved wrong. Sanghvi wants India to support resume clandestine operations in Pakistan and hit back every time India is attacked. Sanghvi says that Pakistan did not harm India for twenty years after the 1971 war which created Bangladesh and weakened Pakistan.

I agree with Sanghvi that a strong Pakistan is unlikely to be friendly towards India. However, in my opinion, a weak Pakistan is equally dangerous and a splintered Pakistan even more so. If for some reason Pakistan were to break up, wont it be so much easier for the Taliban to gobble up such pieces one by one? If India has supplied weapons to insurgents in Balochistan, such weapons will find their way to the hands of Islamic insurgents to be trained on India at some future date. The American experience with the Afghan Mujahiddin and India’s experience with the LTTE show how easy it is for terrorist chickens to come home to roost.

On balance I feel that India ought to take all steps possible to make Pakistan feel secure. Withdrawing the Indian army’s strike corps from India’s western borders would be a good start. Desisting from aggressive overtures through Afghan proxies and not aiding Balochi insurgents would be another. Of course, having done all that, once Pakistan settles the Taliban threat, India may be back to square one, with Pakistan resuming full-fledged support to Islamic fundamentalists who wish to target India or to Kashmiri separatists. Such a scenario would be, in my opinion, be preferable to having a slew of Taliban controlled states to India’s west, some of which will have nuclear weapons.

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