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[Salman Haidar] A time of troubles in Pakistan

The killing of Osama bin Laden was like a huge seismic tremor that gave rise to a number of aftershocks that still plague Pakistan. The fact that U.S. attackers were able to penetrate deep into Pakistani territory without being challenged made the security apparatus look helpless and unworthy of the automatic public trust it has claimed and received. A mood of disenchantment with the army was induced, as a result of which this institution, hitherto more or less sacrosanct, has come under pressure and been forced to defend itself. In a bid to allay anxiety, the army chief has felt it necessary to reach out to the public through town hall-type meetings, and the head of the ISI has offered to quit in the face of hostile questioning by parliamentarians. Withering criticism in the media has added to the problem.

After the killing, terror groups claiming loyalty to Osama threatened retaliatory strikes, which they have undertaken, and the security agencies seem powerless to halt them. Indeed, the main targets have been the armed forces themselves and they have suffered a series of damaging attacks, leading critics to ask how they can claim to defend the country when they cannot even defend themselves. In a bid to stifle dissent, the ISI is accused of the death of a respected journalist who was a persistent and well informed critic: his killing has provoked such a sense of outrage that the Supreme Court has felt it necessary to intervene and inquire into the event. This is indeed a time of troubles in Pakistan.

These happenings are taking place in a deteriorating external situation. Relations with the U.S. have been under strain as a result of its intrusion in pursuit of Osama: Pakistan is indignant at the violation of its sovereign space but the U.S. is impenitent and has said it would so something similar again if need be. High level visits have been exchanged to stabilize the relationship and prevent further deterioration, and Secretary of State Clinton herself was a prominent visitor. It has been reported that in addition to various goodwill gestures, she pushed hard for augmented Pakistan action against insurgents on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and a deadline was established for the purpose.

Meanwhile, U.S. drone attacks in the border area have been stepped up, aimed at targets in both Afghanistan and Pakistan: while the former has made heated protests about the killing of civilians in at least one of the attacks, Pakistan has not had much to say, though earlier it had protested when such attacks were made without its consent. Maybe this is because it does not wish to see further decline in its relations with the U.S. It seems that, however indignant they may be about each other, neither can afford a serious breach at present.

The Pakistan army would be in real difficulty if the aid it receives from the U.S. were to be suddenly terminated, and the U.S. too would find it impossible to provide for its large army in Afghanistan without access through Pakistan. So notwithstanding their mutual doubts and suspicions, they remain locked in their familiar ‘deadly embrace,’ to borrow from the title of a recent book on Pakistan-U.S. relations.

As relations with Washington began to go downhill, Pakistan’s leaders turned, as they have so often done, to Beijing. Unlike the U.S. and its associates, China did not react in minatory fashion when Osama’s hiding place in Pakistan was revealed. While U.S. legislators called for cutting off aid, Chinese spokespersons remained largely supportive of Pakistan.

Pakistani Prime Minister Gillani was able to obtain enough support from Beijing to mitigate his country’s isolation and to allay some of its sense of being hard done by. But while China can match the U.S. in some respects, it is no real alternative as an external prop for Pakistan, so it remained supportive without taking on fresh obligations that could complicate its relations with other regional and international partners. It is evident that Islamabad needs must repair relations with Washington as the only real source of support to keep its military and its economy afloat.

A fresh source of concern in the post-Osama setting comes from reported U.S. plans to start reducing its presence in Afghanistan. Under the original scheme, this was to commence in July, a bare two months ahead. It is now feared that the reduction may be swifter and more substantial than initially planned, for a principal objective of the U.S. presence, which was to eliminate Osama, has been achieved. Accelerated withdrawal could aggravate local problems, especially in Afghanistan, so regional apprehensions could be growing.

Hard times in Pakistan are bound to raise anxiety among neighbors, for they would like to see stability and good order there, not the repeated attacks that have raised fears about the future. Though uncomfortable with these developments, few in India will have much sympathy for their neighbor’s plight, given the bitter history they share. Yet this is the time for statesmanlike initiatives from New Delhi to try to turn the situation in a positive direction. Tangible supportive gestures at this juncture would give substance to India’s oft-repeated wish to develop friendship and to open a new chapter.

There was a recent opportunity when officials of the two sides met for discussions on the Siachen dispute. It would have been appropriate and timely for them to go the extra mile in resolving the dispute, for that would be an important indication of a positive intention about the overall relationship. As it is, the outlines of what could be the final settlement were identified some two decades ago by officials of the two sides, and what is needed now is the political will to endorse what was agreed at that point. Such a result would have a salutary effect on bilateral relations.

The great challenge for India is to find a way of communicating its readiness to transcend old animosities and find a fresh basis of friendly association with its neighbor. The revived composite dialogue is a step in that direction but a stronger, more personal initiative is needed if we are to get out of the morass. Pakistan is in a mess, so there will be many to say that this is not the time for any such initiative. But it is never a good time, for there is always an impediment. Yet people on both sides of the divide are ready for change and for a better relationship. That is what the prime minister desires, as he has often shown, and one must hope he will find the key to decisive action in that direction.

By Salman Haidar

Salman Haidar is India’s former foreign secretary. ― Ed.

(The Statesman/Asia News Network)
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