December 2001 News

Afghan shadow on Kashmir

10 December 2001
The Hindu
Salman Haidar

Chennai: Prior to these events, that country was in deep trouble. Its economy was a shambles, it could not shed the stigma of being a military dictatorship, and its dubious record on terrorism was catching up with it. But ever since Pakistan was able to take its place as a `frontline state' against terrorism, it has left those problems behind. Economic sanctions have been lifted and aid has started to flow, inconvenient facts about cross-border terrorism have been brushed under the carpet, and, most strikingly, Gen. Musharraf has been courted and flattered by world leaders who just a few weeks earlier were zealously keeping him at arm's length. It is curiously reminiscent of the way the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979 enabled a similarly besieged Pakistan to walk away from its troubles. But there is another side to the story. Pakistan's Afghan policy has been shown up as a disastrous failure. Under compulsion, it has betrayed its carefully acquired Taliban clients in a manner that will not easily be forgotten. Its notion of acquiring ``strategic depth'' in Afghanistan has proved to be a mirage. The new administration in Kabul is dominated by elements hostile to Pakistan, which now risks being squeezed on either flank by two unfriendly nations. Moreover, its obedient lining up behind America while its Afghan policy was systematically dismantled has offended many Pakistanis. Yet, whatever the disapproving responses at home, which may strengthen in time, on the whole Pakistan has gained space to manoeuvre. It has obtained respite from the problems that were pushing it to the wall and has substantially reclaimed its voice in international affairs. In India, the impact of these events is less dramatic but yet sizeable. We had been floating along on a new-found sense of intimacy with the U.S., seeing the two as ``natural allies''. It gave us a sense of global consequence commensurate with our aspirations. There was the impression of having finally outstripped Pakistan and leaving it behind to take its place in a different, lesser league. There was no more hyphen in the relationship, we were told, no more equating of the two. This perception had important practical results, for it encouraged India to be firm and unyielding in its dealings with Pakistan, in the belief that the world was with India, not with its foe. But all that has been abruptly overturned. There was no hesitation on the part of America and its allies in using Pakistan as an essential partner when the situation so demanded. With it, there was a revival of the familiar language of alliance between Pakistan and its Western associates. India's tacit assumptions about the sea change in the South Asian balance thus proved unrealistic, and there will have to be a re-weighing of the policy choices before it. All through the Afghan crisis, India and Pakistan have kept a wary eye on each other. The longer-term impact of the crisis is yet to be discerned, but no great advantage to either party in its dealings with the other is likely to ensue. True, now that the military phase is over and new political arrangements are in place, Pakistan will have problems in its backyard. There are scores to settle between it and the Northern Alliance, the Afghan tribes have a long memory for betrayal and treachery, the remnants of the Taliban can create problems, and dormant issues such as the Pashtunistan question can re-surface. But such problems do not translate into gain for India, unless we consider that anything that troubles Pakistan ipso facto benefits us. Our proper concern is the restoration of traditional Indo-Afghan ties, which is presaged in the early visit to India of an Afghan Minister, Mr. Yunus Qanooni. One can hope that this rapidly leads to large-scale Indian help for relief and rehabilitation in Afghanistan. Beyond that, India would do well to keep out of the quagmire of Afghan politics which has drawn down so many unwary outsiders. The Afghan operation has made little dent in the curbing of terrorism in other parts of the region, and India's concerns about cross-border violence remain unmet. Expectations that Pakistan, source of this activity, would be a prime target of the international coalition against terror have been disappointed. Indeed, Pakistan is being viewed as a long-term partner of the anti-terror international effort and not just an auxiliary for the military campaign. Gen. Musharraf is regarded by his Western allies as an important bulwark in the anti-extremist fight, a moderate who needs to be supported and fortified. Thus we are not likely to see decisive action against terrorist centres in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. At best there may be pressure for restraint and no Nelson's eye for Pakistani mischief in Kashmir. A fresh challenge that these events bring to South Asia is that the Kashmir issue has moved up on the international agenda. It may not be at the centre of international concerns but it has begun to attract renewed attention. India is likely to face strengthened calls to engage in dialogue with Pakistan about the problem. There is sympathy for our demand for an end to cross-border terror, but not as a prior condition for Indo-Pakistan engagement on Kashmir. In this development there is more than a hint of the equating of the two countries that has irritated us for decades. It is as if the hyphen we thought we had left behind is once more in place. There is also the possibility that third parties might try to do more than encourage and persuade. Pakistan has long tried to ``internationalise'' Kashmir, so there will be a tendency to believe that the present show of interest in powerful quarters abroad is the fruit of Pakistan's endeavours, a quid pro quo for its support during the Afghan war. Whatever the truth of it, no partisan role by any third party on the substance of the issue is on the cards. That can lead only to an immediate deadlock. If any third party were to come into the picture, it would have to be highly circumspect, doing not much more than nudging and prompting both parties. India has to be ready for something along these lines. In these circumstances, picking up the threads of the bilateral dialogue which faltered after Agra represents the best next step, especially as we do not want unnecessary interference from outside. Terror and war have not changed certain essential realities of the bilateral process: the question today, as it was prior to the events in Afghanistan, is whether the two leaders should meet, and where. Should it be in Kathmandu, if the SAARC Summit is held as scheduled? And should it be a full-scale Summit or a meeting in the corridors? What preparations are needed this time? And so on - there are a score of possible variants in the arrangements. What is important is not how matters are arranged but the will of the two leaders to make progress. External pressures can at best drive them to the conference table. If they get there, they will both have to be on their mettle to show how far they are capable of coming up with meaningful initiatives.


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