Talks can stop terror strikes

"Between the devil and the deep sea, India fixated on Hafiz Saeed has not option but to engage Pakistan, opening new channels with ISI and the Army."

By Ashok K Mehta

(September 30, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) No clairvoyance was required to predict that the talks last Sunday between the Foreign Ministers of India and Pakistan at New York about resumption of the composite dialogue would be barren, especially after the perceived breakthrough at Sharm el-Sheikh, delinking dialogue from terrorism. India has taken the stand that Pakistan must take action against the culprits of the Mumbai attack, particularly the mastermind, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed. Pakistan says the case against him is half-baked and a single issue should not hold back the relationship. Further, it regrets that the public momentum of Sharm el-Sheikh has not fully registered in India. Indeed, except for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the majority in his party and public opinion in India regard the delinking as untimely and unwise even though he believes that dialogue is the only way forward as conflict with Pakistan is not an option.

Engagement is the accepted mantra of conflict resolution. Pakistan’s civilian Government wants resumption of talks as the best way to prevent attacks by working together and exchanging information, though this route has been tried unsuccessfully earlier. The US feels improved relations will allow Pakistan to focus on fighting the Taliban rather than be distracted by India.

Pakistan’s priority is selectively fighting the Taliban, not turning its guns on Hafiz Saeed and thereby opening a second front. The Afghan Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa’h are regarded as strategic weapons in Afghanistan and Kashmir respectively for securing strategic depth on both flanks.

The ISI has a deal with the LeT which allows the Punjabi Taliban space to train for jihad and also assist in the war against Pakistan Taliban. There have been no suicide attacks in Punjab for weeks now though they are a regular feature in the North-West. The JuD has a mass popular base due to its ‘philanthropic work’, charities and relief during national disasters currently for Internally Displaced Persons from Swat. Increased violations of the ceasefire agreement of 2003 by Pakistan are designed to pump in LeT reinforcements into Kashmir to activate the dormant militancy this winter.

By taking a public stance of engagement with India, Pakistan is trying to improve its international image and the stock of the civilian regime. Former President Gen Pervez Musharraf is providing out of country support by blaming India for Pakistani youth taking to terrorism due to “oppression of Muslims” in India. Delhi is unlikely to oblige Islamabad in relenting on its core demand of action against Hafiz Saeed, certainly not until the elections in Maharashtra, commemorating the first anniversary of the Mumbai attack and celebrating the unprecedented one year of zero terrorist attacks in India under UPA II.

The credit for no Pakistan-based terrorist strikes must be shared with Washington,DC, and Islamabad. One year — when that happens in November — is a long period of freedom from terrorism and is too unreal to be permanent. In the lull there is a likely deal between the ISI and Punjabi jihadis. More deals get broken than are made in Pakistan, which brings centre-stage the question of linkages in the history of India-Pakistan dialogue.

Delhi has been consistently saying that Pakistan uses terrorism as an instrument of state policy and must abandon it for a fruitful and uninterrupted dialogue to settle by peaceful means, all outstanding issues including Kashmir. While denying any state-sponsorship of terrorism, Pakistan attributes acts of terror to the unresolved Kashmir dispute and lately to India’s indigenous terror outfits. Terrorism and Kashmir have been the core issue with each side advocating its concerns taking precedence over the others. Though never formally articulated, willy-nilly both dropped terrorism and Kashmir “First” before addressing other issues on the composite dialogue. India is no longer — and not for the first time — pressing dismantling of the terrorist infrastructure but disciplining Hafiz Saeed who has filed a case against his arrest.

Look at the dialogue graph and how spoilers have periodically spiked it. The attack on Parliament in December 2001 severed the dialogue process so acutely that the two coun tries nearly went to war. One worthy lesson from Operation Parakram is that was is simply not an option. It was this outcome that persuaded former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to extend the hand of friendship to restore the peace process in January 2004. Three valuable years and hard-built trust were lost.

In July 2006, the Mumbai train bombings derailed the talks for several months till Mr Singh and Gen Pervez Musharraf resuscitated the dialogue on the sidelines of the Nam summit in Havana by establishing the discredited Joint Anti-Terror Mechanism which had its first meeting in early 2007. This mechanism became the unlikely crutch with which to rescue any future casualties of the dialogue. The Samjhauta Express attack in February 2007 dislocated the talks which were quickly referred to the JATM. This was followed by the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul in February 2008 and the mother of all terrorist attacks, in November that year in Mumbai.

Not only has no progress been made in the composite dialogue, the overall climate of suspicion and distrust has also worsened and new areas of dispute cropped up — Afghanistan, Baluchistan and water. Between 2002 and 2009 Pakistan’s top leaders have at least six times committed publicly not to permit the use of their soil for attacks against India. Only after Mumbai did Islamabad acknowledge that the attack emanated from its soil, but that there was no involvement of the state.

It is clear that linkages between terror and dialogue have not worked as there is not yet a permanent insulation of the dialogue from spoilers. India’s reaction to terrorist attacks has been proportionate to the visibility of targets, intensity of damage and scale of casualties. The strike on Parliament was equated with an assault on India’s democracy and sovereignty; the Mumbai attacks a stab at India’s commercial heart; and the train attacks while high on casualties were low in profile.

India has moved from zero tolerance to an acceptable threshold and distinguishing between non-state actors and state connivance. Pakistan is suggesting engagement so that future attacks can be prevented. DG ISI, Lt Gen Shuja Pasha has made two recent overtures: briefing Indian High Commission Defence Advisor in Islamabad and attending the Indian High Commissioner’s iftaar.

Between the devil and the deep sea, India fixated on Hafiz Saeed has not option but to engage Pakistan, opening new channels with ISI and the Army.
-Sri Lanka Guardian