More bangs for their bucks

“AL QAEDA is on the run,” the president of the United States announced earlier this month. “That group of terrorists who attacked our country is slowly but surely being decimated ... They’re not a problem anymore.” Last week, after the blasts in Riyadh but before the bombings in Casablanca, he sounded a more cautious note: “The enemies of freedom are not idle and neither are we.”

The latter clause was, perhaps, superfluous — “the enemies of freedom” is a description that fits all those who claim innocent lives in the pursuit of their objectives.

The Saudi and Moroccan cities, meanwhile, haven’t been the only targets. The past week has also witnessed bloodshed in Chechnya. Shell petrol stations in Karachi have been targeted. Shortly after the first meeting between Palestinian and Israeli prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas at the weekend, a suicide bomber killed eight people in Jerusalem. Lebanese authorities claim to have foiled a plot to attack the US embassy and other American interests in Beirut. And six African countries have been cited as possible venues for terrorism, with Kenya the likeliest contender.

Al Qaeda has been named as the probable perpetrator of the outrages in Riyadh and Casablanca — a series of coordinated blasts, including suicide bombings, that caused dozens of fatalities in each case. The charges are speculative but, in the circumstances, not exactly unreasonable, particularly in the Saudi case, where the authorities reportedly failed to pay sufficient attention to weeks of warnings from western intelligence services.

If the speculation is correct, then George W. Bush ought to acknowledge that these are hardly the actions of an organization “on the run” that is “not a problem any more”. Hosni Mubarak, who is not generally known for his opposition to Washington’s foreign policy, had remarked at the outset of the Iraq war that the US aggression would give birth to a hundred Osama bin Ladens. As Mary Riddell commented in The Guardian last week, “If the Iraq war was a gift to bin Ladenites, then Riyadh was the thank you note.”

US vice-president Dick Cheney is quoted as having said in a speech, post-Riyadh: “The only way to deal with this threat ultimately is to destroy it. There’s no treaty [that] can solve this problem. There’s no peace agreement, no policy of containment or deterrence that works to deal with this threat. We have to go find the terrorists.”

There is plenty of potential for disagreement with the implication that the terrorist trends in Islam are unrelated to past and present American actions. However, even if one ignores, for the moment, the wider context, the obvious question his contentions raise is: Well, why not go and find the terrorists instead of mucking about in Mesopotamia?

Although the war on Iraq was posited initially as a campaign within the broader so-called war on terror, that fiction became progressively harder to maintain. It’s been a month since the Ba’ath administration withered away, but no weapons of mass destruction have been unearthed, nor any evidence of links with Al Qaeda.

Worse still, no coherent plan for Iraq’s reconstruction exists, and the inability of the occupation forces to restore the basic infrastructure and to maintain law and order prompted a second regime change within weeks of the first one. Meanwhile, Donald Rumsfeld has made clear that, no matter what the majority of Iraqis want, an Islamist government is out of the question. So much for democracy.

While it’s clear to all but the wilfully blind that the assault on Iraq was completely unrelated to the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent hunt for terrorists (“Our leaders went to war because they couldn’t think what else to do,” writes Riddell. “Al Qaeda, by contrast, has no lack of ideas.”), it is widely assumed that the earlier war against Afghanistan was a more or less legitimate response to Al Qaeda’s attacks on New York and Washington.

The Taliban, predictably, weren’t hard to dislodge. (installing them in power hadn’t proved all that hard either for Pakistan’s military intelligence, with Saudi connivance and tacit American support.) Tracking down Al Qaeda’s command structure proved to be a much trickier proposition.

Notwithstanding the Torah Borah firefights, this objective was largely to be a failure from the American point of view. The hundreds of captives shipped out to Guantanamo Bay were, it would appear, mostly foot soldiers at best. When Bush warned last week that the Riyadh terrorists would feel the full weight of American justice, it was hard not to think of Camp X-Ray — although American injustice has, since 9/11, also acquired bizarre new forms in the continental United States.

Virtually all significant successes against Al Qaeda have been recorded on Pakistani soil, through police action rather than military manoeuvres. Had that been the main tack adopted from the outset — not just in Pakistan but also in the Gulf, in North Africa, wherever there was evidence of Al Qaeda activity — it is likely to have yielded much more substantial results in terms of curbing terrorism, with negligible “collateral damage”.

But within the constraints of a sensible course of action along those lines, it would hardly have been possible for the neo-conservative clique that surrounds Bush to keep alive their dream of world domination, through conquest if necessary. Afghanistan was effectively a practice run.

Iraq was set up as more of a challenge, and the fall of Baghdad undoubtedly has struck fear in the hearts of neighbouring states (although neither the mullahs in Iran nor the Ba’athists in Damascus can be expected to crumble to their knees in awe or shock).

As far as the votaries of violence are concerned, however, the wars have had the opposite effect. Recruitment has become simpler than before, as US military aggression has encouraged fanatical tendencies among the devout. Besides, as western intelligence agencies are now beginning to fathom, Al Qaeda, for what it’s worth, appears to differ substantially from terrorist groups they have sought to tackle in the past. Rather than the tight centralized control that characterizes the IRA in Northern Ireland or the ETA in Spain, it seems to be a loose conglomeration of affiliates scattered throughout the world, with substantial room for local initiative. It’s akin to a multinational franchise like McDonald’s or Starbucks, willing to outsource ‘martyrdom’ operations wherever possible.

It is such aspects of the organization that lead John Gray, in his recent book ‘Al Qaeda and What It Means to be Modern’, to describe it as a modernist phenomenon. Be that as it may, it certainly cannot be construed as a modernizing influence: if it had its way, we’d be travelling back in time hundreds of years. But it is a product of its times: of globalization, of imperialism, of the corruption and decay in the Arab world.

Which brings us, naturally enough, to the Saudi kingdom. It has lately been alleged that Al Qaeda has infiltrated the Saudi administration and its security and military forces at all levels. Whether or not that is true, the brutal attacks on three elitist residential compounds in Riyadh suggests that the bin Ladenites are not going to be placated by the gesture of US troops formally exiting the kingdom. Nor is there any reason to believe that the House of Saud can reform the state structures to an appreciable extent without signing its own political death warrant.

Although some of the Washington neo-cons wouldn’t be averse to US-propelled regime change in Riyadh, the fear of bin Ladenism infecting the majority of Muslims ought to suffice as a restraint. But should the House of Saud begin to crumble, it is likely that the US will throw caution to the wind. In such circumstances, oil will inevitably take precedence over Muslim sensitivities; after all, the Americans didn’t assume control of Iraqi resources with the intention of letting the world’s largest proven crude reserves slip out of their grasp. Morocco, too, will feel some pressure, but can expect to be left largely to its own devices. After all, no Americans died in Casablanca, although the violence was chiefly directed against westerners and, equally reprehensibly, against Jews. Although the regime in Rabat opposed the war in Iraq on account of its possible consequences, it remains staunchly pro-western and has for a long time been on good terms with Israel.

Experts suggest that the killings in Casablanca didn’t boast as many Al Qaeda hallmarks as the bloodshed in Riyadh, which points to a franchise operation. A large number of Muslim leaders have unreservedly condemned both incidents.

That is unquestionably the correct response to acts of madness. Let us also in keep in mind, though, the fact that Al Qaeda and its affiliates draw sustenance from US actions and intentions.

John Gray veers close to the truth when he describes radical Islam as “a symptom of the disease of which it is pretending to be the cure”.

Unfortunately, the same description also more or less fits those who have sworn to eliminate this symptom, but whose chosen remedies keep exacerbating the disease.

E-mail: mahirali@journalist.com

The first uniform

WHATEVER democrats may say about a head of state in army uniform, four of them are part of our history and are inextricably woven into the national pattern, even its psyche. Only beware the day when we have a constitution laying it down that the COAS will be ex-officio President of Pakistan. The on-going tussle about the uniform led my mind incidentally to the first of them — General Muhammad Ayub Khan — and I sat down to write from memory some stray thoughts about him.

Ruling from October 1958 to March 1969, President Ayub liked to be known as a soldier-statesman. Western writers, ever ready to employ catchy epithets for Third World leaders, obliged by using the appellation for him and made him happy. They also described him as the de Gaulle of Asia which further boosted his ego.

There were similarities. Both Ayub and de Gaulle came to power through the army and wee impatient with political parties, convinced that their country needed a leader with supreme authority. Student protests had a hand in ending the rule of the both after they had remained in power for ten years. I do not know if de Gaulle too liked to be known as a soldier-statesman, but certainly he was never called the Ayub Khan of France!

You’ll be surprised how many of the common people approved of President Ayub’s domineering style of government just because he was tall, fair and handsome. Trucks from his home district Hazara still carry his portrait, in uniform, on their back-boards. Writers and commentators remind us that the Pakistan development plan in his time was copied in toto by South Korea, though they do not credit him with leaving behind any fine traditions, either in politics or in the general conduct of public affairs. The consensus seems to be that he laid great stress on material development.

As head of state and government, Ayub Khan somehow did not determine the course of the September 1965 war with India, though one would have thought that as supreme commander of the defence forces, his military genius (if any) would have been available to his juniors. He was most unhappy at the turn that infiltration into Occupied Kashmir had taken in the shape of full-scale hostilities. As DPR, Punjab, I have myself heard his most trusted Governor Kalabagh, saying in anger, “There he sits in Pindi wetting his pants while the nation is in the throes of the worst crisis of its life.” He was obviously no fighter, despite his martial bearing, his “tall, fair and handsome” looks and his row of medals, including the Hilal-e-Juraat.

I have always wondered why military dictators, with all the brute force and authority of a jungle law at their command, are afraid of the press. If they were tolerant of criticism they might leave a more favourable impression. President Ayub too was very touchy about criticism, and that is why two of his measures connected with the press, more than anything else, tarnished his image with the educated and the enlightened.

One was the Press & Publications Ordinance, made in 1963, which placed many obstacles in the path of free reporting and comment, and the other the taking over of Mian Iftikharuddin’s Progressive Papers Ltd., the publishers of The Pakistan Times and Imroze. The first was the outcome of the patent military distrust of freedom of the press and the second a natural corollary of that distrust. He was advised that the two dailies would lose their credibility and readership but the advice obviously fell on deaf ears. It is a token of the illiberal nature of all succeeding rulers of Pakistan — even those elected by the people — that not one of them was ready to release the newspapers from official thraldom.

President Ayub was doubtless a gentleman. For instance, when he was locked in combat with Miss Fatima Jinnah for the presidential election, he would not countenance any of the mean and vulgar references to her as a political opponent that are considered part and parcel of electioneering in this country, and which, 20 years later, marked the behaviour of the politicians opposed to Ms Benazir Bhutto and her mother. Maybe he knew the public would not tolerate any disrespect to her. But there it was.

The only adverse comment made was that, as a woman, Miss Jinnah was incapable of dealing with Pakistan’s national and international problems. What a travesty of logic and reason that, whereas all the religious parties were vehement in their belief in 1988 that a woman (Benazir) should not be prime minister, they were solidly behind Miss Jinnah’s candidature for a post that combined the authority of both president and prime minister.

To General Ayub goes the dubious credit for a military take- over of the country. Later of course it became a habit with army chiefs. Had he not imposed the first martial law in October 1958, it is doubtful if any succeeding army chief would have dared to take such a step. He compounded the misdeed in March 1969 by handing over the reins of office to General Yahya Khan (who promptly declared martial law) rather than follow his own constitution of 1962 in which the Speaker of the National Assembly should have succeeded him. This was unforgivable.

Actually the decline had set in much earlier. The 1965 war had awakened East Pakistan to a feeling of being neglected, his own serious illness and slow recovery had drained much of his grand manner, and the increasing stories of his sons’ business activities had all but tarnished his own reputation of honesty and integrity.

Abdul Qayyum, one of his staff officers, tells in his book,”Three Presidents, Three Prime Ministers,” how the dictator had changed in the worldly-wise sense, saying, “It really saddened me to watch the progressive transformation in Ayub Khan’s personality as a result of his succumbing to sycophancy. When I joined him in 1958, he would not only perceive the motive behind the flatterers but tell them firmly to come to the point. He was straight forward and outspoken himself and expected and appreciated forthright and direct reply or advice solicited by him.”

Except for the September War, President Ayub’s ten-year rule was relatively calm and uneventful. A constitution of his choice had been promulgated, Basic Democracy was firmly in position and there was a National Assembly with his own brother, Sardar Bahadur Khan, leading the opposition. Also there was feverish development activity all over the country which probably kept the people’s political aspirations in check.

I wish I had more space at my disposal because many things have had to be left unsaid. Even the above narrative may be questioned by some, but I have gone through with it so that interested readers can compare the past with the present. On my part no lessons are intended.

These Afghan spillovers

By Najmuddin A. Shaikh


WRITING in the New York Times of May 5 the paper’s Pakistan correspondent Carlotta Gall, says “Quetta is a home away from home for the Taliban. CDs of Taliban leaders’ speeches are on sale in the shops, the Friday sermons in the mosques are openly supportive of those who consider themselves to be waging a holy war against Americans or other non-Muslims, and young men speak openly of their desire to go to Afghanistan to fight.

“The border regions of Pakistan, and Quetta in particular, are emerging as the main centre of Taliban support in the region, and a breeding ground for opposition sentiment to the American campaign in Afghanistan and Mr. Karzai’s government.” The report adds: “Senior Taliban officials and commanders are taking refuge here, too, Afghan and American officials say.... Members of the political opposition in Pakistan confirm that Taliban leaders are active and are recruiting young men to fight.....Those familiar with the situation contend that Pakistan’s army and secret service are allowing the Taliban to operate in Pakistan, and even protecting them. Further, the local government, now dominated by an alliance of religious parties sympathetic to the Taliban, provides them with legitimacy by association”.

While this is a press report, we also have a statement by the UN secretary-general’s representative for Afghanistan, Brahimi Lakhdar, talking of “worrying reports of hostile elements crossing into Afghanistan over the eastern and southern borders.”

Some Pakistani observers go even further, maintaining rather bitterly that if Quetta is “a home away from home” the border city of Chaman is “home” for the Taliban. It became a Taliban city many years ago and its nature has not changed following the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. In the Chaman area or for that matter along the entire Pak-Afghan border immigration and customs controls are, to say the least, extremely lax.

As for the allegation that the sympathy of the provincial governments lie with the Taliban, there is the memorable quote from Mr. Munawwar Hassan, the secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, immediately after the MMA’s electoral victory: “We will stop the on-going pursuit of the Taliban and Al Qaeda when we form the government”, and that “we will go by the rule of law. The Taliban and Al Qaeda members are our brothers”.

Perhaps things are not as bad as these assertions would suggest but these certainly determine the perception of President Karzai who made this the central part of his discourse with President Musharraf during his April visit to Pakistan. It should be noted that Karzai, despite criticism from his Tajik colleagues, has maintained the position that ordinary Taliban who have renounced the goal of seeking the overthrow of the present government in Afghanistan are free to return to Afghanistan or come out of their hideouts without fear of reprisals.

Possibly, Karzai proposed to Musharraf that in the light of this general amnesty, the Pakistanis should have no hesitation in persuading or coercing the Taliban in Pakistan to return to their homes in Afghanistan. What action we have been able to take on this account is not clear.

The Americans have a similar perception. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times (May 6) the outgoing commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Gen. McNeil, “criticized Pakistan for not doing more to police its border and control the movements of terrorist forces known to seek shelter there.” Gen. McNeil and other American commanders have also publicly stated that they have proposed coordinated patrolling of the Pak-Afghan border by American and Afghan troops on one side and Pakistani troops and paramilitaries on the other — so that the Taliban fleeing Afghanistan after attacks on American or Afghan targets would not find safe passage across the border. There is no publicly available information to confirm that this has been done.

The Americans are very happy about the cooperation that they have received from Pakistan in the apprehension of Al Qaeda operatives. Gen. McNeil, also praised Pakistan “for arresting about 470 Al Qaeda and Taliban suspects and giving the US military transit, flyover and basing rights....” More recently US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, during his visit to South Asia, paid warm tribute to Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and armed forces for what they had been able to achieve.

Particularly impressive was the apprehension of Khalid Shaikh Mohammad not only because of the important place he had in the Al Qaeda hierarchy but because it was a wholly Pakistani intelligence effort with no contribution being made by the American agencies and their electronic tracking devices. President Bush himself publicly thanked Pakistan for Khalid’s apprehension,

At this time the American priority and the principal American demand on Pakistan is the apprehension of Al Qaeda leaders and activists. Recent reports following the horrific attacks in Saudi Arabia and in Morocco suggest that Al Qaeda or organizations linked to it or replicating its modus operandi have gained new strength after the American invasion of Iraq. American intelligence reports now assert that Al Qaeda itself is reorganizing and that new or reorganized bases are being created in a number of countries, including Pakistan. The Americans are therefore not likely to press Pakistan for action against the Taliban if it means the diversion of resources away from the redoubled effort that would be needed against Al Qaeda.

That, of course, is the American priority, and one that we have perforce to share because more and more it is evident that, like Saudi Arabia and Morocco, Pakistan too is on the Al-Qaeda hit-list. The Americans may not therefore press us on the Taliban question at this time, but is that any reason why we should not identify what we need to do in our own national interest?

We may be unhappy with the current set-up in Afghanistan. We may believe, quite rightly, that this set-up cannot bring peace and stability and that the Pushtun plurality must have a bigger share in the administration of Afghanistan. But turning a blind eye to the activities of the Taliban will only exacerbate instability and make more difficult the task of persuading the Americans and their coalition partners to take the steps necessary to give the Pushtun majority its due.

Allowing the Taliban to continue to have the freedom of action that they currently seem to enjoy also worsens our domestic problems. It is known that many of them have had intimate links with Al Qaeda and are providing them with logistic and manpower support. It is also known that they have no hesitation in using their military muscle to support particular political inclinations in Pakistan.

If we are genuinely pursuing a “Pakistan First” policy, we must take steps to send the Taliban back to Afghanistan permanently and to ensure that our territory is not used as ‘safe haven’ by the Taliban or other opponents of the Afghan regime. Our assessment of how peace can best be brought to Afghanistan will fall on more receptive ears if we have to make sure our hands are seen to be clean.

Let us make no mistake: if we don’t recognize our national interest and pursue it vigorously we may soon find ourselves receiving the same sort of blunt demarches that followed the events of September 11. The Al Qaeda factor will insulate us from such pressure for only some time.

There are some who say that the current Afghan government’s flirtation with India is another reason for us not to stand in the way of anything that discomfits the present government. Maulana Fazlur Rehman has told Reuters: “The real power in the present Afghan government is with the Northern Alliance, which is pro-India and not pro-Pakistan,” and that “our information is that India has not only strengthened its political ties with Afghanistan but has also extended its defence and military influence up to Pakistan’s western border.” These remarks were probably prompted by the indecent haste with which the Panjsheris in Kabul approved the setting up of Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad and the warm welcome they have accorded to the scheme for India and Iran to cooperate in building the roads necessary to carry Indian goods shipped to Iranian ports to markets in Afghanistan.

There is no doubt that India is seeking to bolster its presence in Afghanistan and is doing so primarily to annoy Pakistan but it is also doing so to strengthen its claim to preeminence in South Asia. It would foolish to believe, that the growth of Indian ties with Afghanistan can be curbed by adopting hostility towards the Karzai regime.

Pakistan and Afghanistan have common interests. If Central Asian states wish to trade with the world or with South Asia, exporting their energy resources and importing their requirements, it can only happen via routes passing through Afghanistan and Pakistan. To benefit from such trade Pakistan needs a working relationship with whatever stable government is in power in Afghanistan. By the same token, any government in Afghanistan needs a working relationship with Pakistan not only because of the transit trade of South Asia but because the most economic route for Afghanistan’s own trade with the outside world lies through Pakistan.

Our primary concern should be to promote a stable government in Afghanistan and we can argue with the powers- that-be that such stability will come only if the Pushtuns are given their due, but we do not need to take up cudgels on their behalf at the cost of our own national interest.

The writer is a former foreign secretary.

The political war

WITH the war over, the Bush Administration is hard at work preparing for the battle of 2004.

The four-star general in charge is Karl Rove, an expert in presidential election warfare. One of his aides, who works in the basement of the White House, said, “We must defeat the Axis of Democrats and Ralph Nader no matter how much it costs. We also have to win Florida.”

I said, “As an embedded political correspondent, do you have a plan?” The aide replied, “We are going after the minds and hearts and votes of the American people.”

“That’s going to cost money,” I said.

“We’ll get the money. After all, we are fighting for the Homeland Security of the Republican Party.”

“Isn’t it a bit early to fight for the hearts and minds of the voters?” The aide said, “Gen. Rove doesn’t think so. The Democrats are in disarray. They don’t know who their leader will be. The general wants to make sure their morale is low.”

“Good thinking,” I responded. “What else are you planning?”

“We plan on dropping pamphlets from private company jets in the urban areas, warning the residents that if they desert the Republican party they will have to live with budget deficits, wasteful spending and Ted Kennedy.”

“That’s fearsome.”

“And if the unions don’t surrender, we will turn them over to the IRS, which has no mercy.”

I said, “Will Rove observe the Geneva Convention Articles of War?”

“It depends. If he is going to lose Alabama and Mississippi, the articles go out the window. Political warfare is not a pretty business.”

“What about the economy?”

“We are still blaming Clinton. In a speech to the country, we will have Bush say he is fighting against Wall Street money men who have caused the market to collapse. If elected, he will promise a chicken in every pot and a tax cut in every tax shelter.”

“Suppose the Democrats counterattack?”

“As of now, President Bush holds the high ground. We are taking out ads in all the newspapers that if you vote against Bush you are voting against your commander in chief.”

“What about calling the person a traitor?”

“We’re saving that for the TV commercials.”—Dawn/Tribune Media Services

What prospects dialogue?

By M.H. Askari


IN AN interview to an Indian daily, India’s foreign minister Yashwant Sinha has outlined the format of a “composite dialogue” between Pakistan and India. According to him, the nuclear issue and matters concerning security will be the priority items on the agenda for defusing tensions in the region.

However, in recent weeks New Delhi has been making an unusual display of its achievements in the nuclear field. It has test-fired its 700-kilometre range Agni missile and a supersonic Brahmos cruise missile.

While celebrating the fifth anniversary of the 1998 nuclear explosions on May 11, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, otherwise known for his moderate stance, also spoke in a somewhat boastful manner as he gave awards to the scientists and technicians connected with the 1998 nuclear tests. He declared that India was the master of its own destiny and could make its own decisions about its sovereign interests and security concerns.

One may recall here that writing on the subject on the first anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the father of the Indian nation, Mahatma Gandhi, had declared that nuclear weapons “represent the most sinful and diabolical use” of science. He called the “atom bomb mentality” immoral, unethical and addictive and warned that only “evil could come out of it.” However, it appears that today, 57 years later, the Indian leadership has divested itself of the meaning and import of the wise words of the father of the nation.

India carried out its first nuclear explosion some three decades ago, in 1974, and called it a ‘peaceful’ explosion. The then Indian prime minister at the time, Mrs Indira Gandhi, wrote to Pakistan’s prime minister, the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, stressing that it was strictly in the context of scientific development that “our scientists have launched this experiment... There are no political or foreign policy implications of this test.”

However, the Indian nuclear explosion gave rise to a strong and influential nuclear lobby in Pakistan, including Mr Bhutto himself, which called for a tit-for-tat response to India’s action. Both India and Pakistan have since developed their respective nuclear capabilities. A nuclear clash between the two countries appeared ominously real last year when the Indian and Pakistani forces were engaged in an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation along the common border.

It is vitally important that Pakistan and India develop a basis for defusing the tensions arising out of a mad race for arms and the nuclearization of the region. According to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), between 1985 to 1989 India was the biggest Third World buyer of arms, spending about 17,345 million dollars. Pakistan in the same period, despite its weaker economy, spent 2,919 million dollars on arms. Not surprisingly, Indian foreign minister, Mr Yashwant Sinha, says that the first point to be negotiated by India and Pakistan would be nuclear and security-related issues.

In the context of the forthcoming India-Pakistan talks, as and when they take place it has to be recognized that success will depend largely on the environment of trust and mutual confidence that the two sides are able to establish and sustain. Judging from the acrimonious tone and content of the spate of statements and counter-statements being issued by both sides these days, the outlook for the present does not appear to be very bright.

No date for the first round of talks has been fixed yet and all that Mr Sinha said the other day, in a TV interview, was that “the thawing has already begun.” An early beginning of talks is surely in the best interest of peace and normalization.

The format of “six-plus two composite talks” suggested by the Indian foreign minister in his press interview is of course not new. According to an Indian official publication, a formal agreement on the format was announced, after a meeting of the two foreign secretaries in New York as early as in September 1998. Talks on peace and security and confidence-building measures (CBMs) were to be held at the level of foreign secretaries while other officials were to deal with the other outstanding issues. However, it is plain that an agreement on substantive issues can only be worked at the level of political leadership. Normalization between India and Pakistan can take place only when there is the necessary political will to achieve that end.

At present it is not quite clear whether the talks at the level of foreign secretaries will be held at the same time as the rest of the official-level talks. Issues like travel, visa, trade and cultural exchanges also need to be taken up without any undue delay as they concern the common citizens of the two countries. Also, normalization in these spheres will go a long way in building up the necessary trust and confidence for coming to grips with issues like Kashmir and nuclear de-escalation or restraint.

Prime Minister Vajpayee’s observations, while talking to journalists in Minali last week, made it clear that no preconditions were attached to resumption of talks with Pakistan. However, he hoped that Pakistan would put an end to cross-border infiltration and that the infrastructure in Pakistan or Azad Kashmir for training of “militants” would be dismantled.

However, Mr Murli Manohar Joshi, Speaker of the India’s Lok Sabha, struck a different note saying that Pakistan had not so far put an end to cross-border infiltration. He also ruled out the possibility of a delegation of Indian parliamentarians visiting Pakistan in response to the recent visit of a group of Pakistani lawmakers to India.

Significantly, a report from New Delhi carried by the Khaleej Times has claimed that in their recent meeting with the US deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, the Indian leaders left little doubt that the offer of resumption of talks to Pakistan was “conditional on an end to infiltration from across the border”, saying that “no nation could talk to an antagonist with a gun held to its head.”

According to the Khaleej Times report, Mr Armitage’s reaction to all that was to read out to the Indian prime minister the English translation of the lines from one of Mr Vajpayee’s Hindi poems: hum jang na honey

dengay.

There is every indication that the prospects of an early resumption of contacts between India and Pakistan have been welcomed by the people on both sides, although there are certain vested interests who would not favour the possibility. However it would be extremely disappointing if after all the hope that has been built up the resumption of talks does not materialise.

It has to be realized that the estrangement between the two neighbours is exploited by the religious extremists on both sides to pursue their respective agendas of encouraging extremism and mistrust. For the extremists in Pakistan, the unresolved Kashmir problem is the reason why Islamabad should not pursue a path of peace and normalization with India.

For the Hindutva fanatics in India, Pakistan is a favourite whipping boy because of its perceived interference in Kashmir. Religious extremism and militancy on one side has been sustained by a similar phenomenon on the other. The growth and intensity of fanaticism in both countries can be arrested by a return to normality in the relations between the two countries.


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