Peace prospects in S. Asia

By Khalid Mahmud Arif


DOMESTIC compulsions, external diplomatic pressures and Pakistan’s refusal to be blackmailed by India’s ‘pre-emption daydream’ prompted Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee to restore full diplomatic ties with Pakistan. Addressing the parliament on April 23, Vajpayee said, “We are committed to the improvement of relations with Pakistan and are willing to grasp every opportunity for doing so.”

He went on to add, “We have repeatedly expressed the need to create a conducive atmosphere for a sustained dialogue which necessarily requires an end to cross-border terrorism and the dismantling of its infrastructure.” India had earlier ruled out any dialogue with Pakistan at any level unless the so-called cross-border terrorism ended — an allegation that Pakistan firmly rejects.

India had unilaterally downgraded its diplomatic ties and snapped rail, road and air links with Pakistan following an attack on India’s parliament in December 2001, the causes of which are shrouded in mystery. The policy made Saarc a hostage to its intransigence, prevented cricket matches with Pakistan, and sabotaged Saarc games which were due some time ago in Islamabad. In mid-April, Foreign Minister Yashwant Sinha, discarding his thin veneer of diplomacy, threatened that Pakistan was “a fit case” for pre-emptive strikes by India.

This led Foreign Minister Khursheed Mehmood Kasuri of Pakistan to announce that it was India that was a more appropriate case for pre-emptive action for its consistent violations of UN resolutions on Kashmir. The rhetoric exposed the mindset of India’s ruling junta.

New Delhi’s decision to restore full diplomatic ties with Islamabad may be a genuine strategic leap away from the hostile past and promote friendship in the future. Given India’s past performance, many in Pakistan seriously doubt Vajpayee’s ability to change the course of history. A more plausible reason may be a tactical necessity prompted by external and internal factors. India is under increasing pressure from the US and other countries for initiating meaningful negotiations with Pakistan. Its domestic compulsions include ground realities — political, economic, psychological, military and others. The latter possibility rings the bell of truth because the political hawks that surround Vajpayee had earlier turned the Agra summit from success to failure. Vajpayee faces a credibility gap. The ruling BJP is not reconciled to the creation of Pakistan and dreams of converting South Asia into Akhand Bharat under the guise of a confederation. Advani has made this preposterous proposal more than once. Subash Desai, general secretary of Shiv Sena, says, “There is no use talking to Pakistan.” Pravin Togadiya, general secretary of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), emits venom thus, “We want our military tanks in Lahore, missiles in Rawalpindi and the saffron (Hindu) flag in Karachi.”

It is for Vajpayee to demonstrate if he has the vision for a better future and the political clout to tame the forces of Hindu extremism in India to promote durable peace and stability in South Asia based on the sovereign equality of all regional countries. So far Hindu extremism has had a field day under his BJP-led coalition rule. Impartial observers had reported that Hindu militants in Gujarat State were encouraged by the ruling BJP government to play Holi with the blood of 3,000 slain Muslims to win over Hindu votes in state elections. Prime Minister Vajpayee was not a helpless spectator to the premeditated gory drama played out by Hindu chauvinists in the home state of Mahatma Gandhi.

Notwithstanding such grave doubts and misgivings, Pakistan has adopted a positive and constructive approach to easing bilateral tension largely created from across the border. Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s telephone conversation with Vajpayee, followed by a formal invitation to him to visit Pakistan for bilateral talks, are appreciated across the globe. The Vajpayee-Jamali initiative is a move in the right direction and every effort should be made to promote tranquillity and peace.

The issues in dispute are political in nature. They have to be settled by political means. The bureaucrats should only play a subordinate role in this process. The causes of tension should be removed. The people of Kashmir must get their right of self-determination, particularly when such rights are increasingly being given to all deprived people elsewhere in the world.

The 17-month long military standoff caused by India’s unilateral knee-jerk act hurt both countries. But, for Pakistan, it was not without a gain or two. It gave confidence to Pakistan in its crisis-management capacity and ability. It showed that its national economy, still not robust, has the resilience to withstand economic shocks and pressures. The positive indicators included the rising foreign exchange reserves, increasing exports, growing foreign remittances, a low inflation rate, decreasing fiscal deficit, reduction in debt-service liability and a reasonable recovery of bad debts and bank loans.

On the whole, the economic burden on the national exchequer remained within the ability of the country to bear. While a lot more can and should be done in these fields, what was achieved under difficult conditions had a healthy impact on people and gave confidence to the planners of national economy.

On the political side, democracy is in place and elections have resulted in the formation of representative governments at the federal and provincial levels. Some teething problems persist and a combined government-opposition committee is currently at work to evolve a mutually acceptable solution.

The law and order situation has improved, with many criminals and offenders brought to justice. The Bugti complaints against Sui Northern Gas Pipeline Ltd. (SNGPL) led to disruption of gas supplies to some parts of the country for a few days but the contentious issue of payment of gas royalty was settled.

The national airliner, PIA, performed well despite facing the twin burden of denial of India’s airspace and pressures caused by war in Iraq. The disruption of air flights hurt India itself rather badly by increasing fuel costs and decreasing business. Besides, Indian airlines could not directly fly to Afghanistan. India is thus extremely overtly keen on the restoration of overflying rights.

The danger of military confrontation brought the 55-year old Kashmir dispute under a sharp global focus. India and Pakistan are being advised by all external powers to negotiate a permanent settlement of this dispute by taking into consideration the will of the people of the state. The Kashmir dispute can no longer be relegated to the backburner. The global opinion favours a negotiated settlement. US Secretary of State Colin Powell calls it the ‘moment of opportunity.’ Both countries should seize it.

Vajpayee has his domestic difficulties. Pakistan should firmly project its viewpoint without resorting to political rhetoric. It must demonstrate national unity at this time, start negotiations with cautious optimism and show to the world that, without compromising its national interests, it will travel half-way for promoting durable peace in South Asia. In doing so, this country will never compromise the rights of the people of Kashmir, nor sacrifice its own national interests. Kashmir has strategic significance for Pakistan. The river water flowing out of Kashmir into Pakistan constitutes its lifeline. Pakistan is committed to peace but will never compromise either on its national security or on the rights of the people of Kashmir.

India’s coercive diplomacy cannot browbeat this country. Peace and stability in South Asia is in the mutual interest of both India and Pakistan. Their own prosperity and that of the region are linked with this process. To live and let live as sovereign independent countries is the only viable and sensible option for India and Pakistan. Warmongering is harmful for both countries and should be abjured. Let New Delhi and Islamabad shun hostilities and promote peace by removing the basic causes of tension. This demands political vision and firmness for reining in the forces of extremism on both sides.

Fools ignite fires of hatred; the wise win the heats of their friends and adversaries. Vajpayee and Zafarullah are on trial. Their choice is clear. They can rise to the occasion and leave their imprints on the sands of time. Or, they may fade away as ordinary mortals and get dumped in the dustbin of history.

The writer is a retired general of the Pakistan army.

All quiet on the eastern front?

By Anwer Mooraj


PRIME MINISTER Jamali has at last something to smile about. The King’s party, after much humming and hawing, appears to be finally arriving at some sort of understanding with the opposition on the LFO, and the country has emerged relatively unscathed from the Iraq war. And then there was the phone call, to Mr Vajpayee, which couldn’t have come at a better time.

Mr Jamali is once again his old buoyant self, confident and self-assured, trying to demonstrate with relish that happy days are just around the corner. All the nation has to do is be patient. Publicly the gentlemen in the Pakistan foreign office are equally exuberant and are literally gushing with enthusiasm. But privately, they must be feeling that the euphoria is a little premature, and all is not quiet on the eastern front.

They have seen all the signs before: the exchange of olive branches, the editorial build-up, the swapping of tributes by cricketers, the visits of the peace committees, the exhortations of eternal friendship by statesmen sodden with emotion, and then the sudden denouement, followed by an anxious lull and the renewal of hostilities.

However, the point is, Mr Vajpayee has taken the plunge, in spite of threats from Hindu extremists who want no truck with Pakistan. In a somewhat positive but guarded statement he informed the members of the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha that India and Pakistan would once again be on track, so far as diplomatic relations and over-flying rights are concerned. He even added that this time the dialogue would be “decisive and conclusive”. And , as if to placate the conscience of the anti-military lobby in his country, remarked to his aide after the session that it was much easier to negotiate with Pakistan, now that the country is once again a democracy !

This, at least, is the first step in what analysts believe might result in normalization of relations between two adversaries who have fought three wars and whose people are still trapped in the ineluctable web of suspicion, hatred and bitter memories But it is not likely to happen overnight. In India the perception is that there is every likelihood that the talks will succeed, because the military, which one Indian columnist charmingly referred to as the third chamber of the Pakistan parliament, is supporting the move. They are confident that nothing will go wrong.

The general view in both countries, however, is that the move was not altogether unexpected. The Indian premier had already dropped a hint on April 18 when, heavily guarded by a special unit of commandos, he addressed a public rally in strife-torn Srinagar. In a speech , primarily designed to propitiate an audience that had developed elevated expectations, he said that his country was prepared to discuss all outstanding problems with Pakistan —- including Kashmir. “Guns,” said the premier of the world’s largest democracy, “cannot solve any problems. Only brotherhood is the answer.” It has apparently taken the Indian leadership more than 55 years to arrive at this conclusion.

There were a few other hints that a possible dialogue might take place. These had been dropped by some American statesmen who, after Iraq, have developed a robust estimation of their ability to solve problems, any problem, anywhere in the world. Mr Colin Powell, who somehow manages to add a certain elegiac depth to his pronouncements, and comes across to people in this part of the would as the moderating presence in the current hawkish American administration, had hinted that there would soon be “a stirring in the political wind” in south Asia which would benefit both countries.

This probably led to the belief, which has gained currency on both sides of the subcontinental divide, that it is Mr Bush who is behind this sudden display of magnanimity on the part of the Indian leadership. How else can one explain the fact that when visiting Sikkim a few days before the Srinagar tour , Mr Vajpayee had laid the failure of the Agra summit squarely on the shoulders of President Musharraf ? Or the fact that he again raised the bogey of “cross-border terrorism” when referring to the massacre at Nadimarg in Kashmir?

The issue of American involvement came up unexpectedly in a recently held BBC talk show which included participants from Congress, the BJP, Shiv Sena and the media. The views of the Congress party representative were ambivalent. He felt that it wasn’t really such a big deal if fences were mended with Pakistan. The Shiv Sena representative, on the whole, welcomed the proposed talks, but felt that the summit should be preceded by discussions between people on the lower rungs of the ministerial ladder .

What did transpire in the discussions, however, was the admission by one of the participants in the talk show that there were also genuine , indigenous freedom fighters in Kashmir, who were responsible for the insurrection in the valley. This is something that had never been publicly admitted before, at least on television.

The BJP representative, on the other hand, while enthusiastically defending Mr Vajpayee’s endeavours to break the ice, vehemently denied that the Americans were involved in any way whatsoever in bringing about a rapprochement. “India is a big country and nobody can push us around,” he said with aplomb. He had obviously forgotten the Blackwill episode which bears mention.

Mr Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, had increasingly come to be identified with that country’s stand on South Asian politics, and his constant harping on “cross border terrorism” was certainly strengthening Indian intransigence. His sudden recall from Delhi is being interpreted in Pakistan as America’s attempt to remove all unnecessary irritants which were vitiating the political atmosphere between the two countries, so that the way could be paved for future talks.

The involvement of the United States in South Asia covered three timeframes. The first phase, which spread over the whole of the 1990s, began with the Kashmir uprising of 1989. The United States chose to ignore the issue and treated it as a minor aberration. But the superpower did take some precautionary steps and sent the Gates mission to Islamabad to warn President Ishaq Khan against military adventurism along the Line of Control.

The second phase, which coincided with the nuclear tests of 1998, could best be described as the containment phase. The ‘Islamic terrorist’ had surfaced in the media and there were widespread fears in the West of the creation of an ‘Islamic bomb’. The issue of Kashmir was unfortunate, but it had to be contained. The important thing, however, was that much to the chagrin of the Indian foreign office, Washington had come to acknowledge that a problem did exist, and that Jammu and Kashmir was a disputed territory.

The end of the decade saw the Vajpayee-Nawaz Sharif summit, Kargil and the Zinni-Lampher mission to persuade Pakistan to withdraw from the frozen wastes of Kargil. The decade also saw the US rebuke of Indian forces for committing human rights violations in Kashmir. Analysts felt at the time that they might be witnessing a tilt in US foreign policy. At a seminar in Karachi, speakers fondly recalled that famous telephone call that an angry President Nixon made to President Brezhnev in the winter of 1971 when the CIA in India had informed Nixon that Indira Gandhi had plans to invade the western wing of the country as well.

In the third and current phase, the US is apparently seeking a solution to the India-Pakistan impasse. Who has been the catalyst behind the sudden change of heart on the part of the Indian leadership, isn’t really relevant . The point is, a start has been made, and the people are now looking forward to an era of peace.

By and large, the people of Lahore and Karachi have reacted somewhat differently to the news of the rapprochement. In Lahore the mood, while hopeful, is cautious, and the residents of this city will not accept a political solution which does not include a just and equitable settlement for the people of Kashmir, — a solution which allows them the UN-guaranteed right of self-determination. It must be remembered that most of the soldiers and airmen who suffered in the three wars came from Punjab, the heartland of Pakistan.

In Karachi, the response was spontaneous, and the news of the possible normalization of relations between the two countries sent a tremor of excitement through members of various communities who saw great opportunities for trade and travel. Who knows, one might yet get to see the Taj Mahal in the moonlight. That is, if the politicians don’t mess things up and manage to get it right this time round.

E-mail: a-mooraj@cyber.net.pk

Recalling Verdun battle

By Eric S. Margolis


SOMETHING keeps drawing me back to Verdun (France), the most evil and sinister battlefield on earth, a mere 18 km (10.8 miles) by 10 km (six miles), where during ten hellish months of 1916 1.4 million French and German soldiers were killed or gravely wounded.

Each year it is my custom to greet spring in France’s exquisite countryside, exploring battlefields and forts of the two world wars. But this, my sixth journey to Verdun, holds particular personal meaning.

Decades of travel, covering many wars, reading the history of man’s folly have made me a cosmopolitan who detests borders and earnestly believes mankind’s worst evils are nationalism and religious fanaticism. Still, there are four countries that I hold particularly dear and to whom I feel respectful (as opposed to hormonal) patriotism, respect and loyalty — Canada, France, Switzerland, the United States (in alphabetical, not emotional order), and reserve a special place for Pakistan.

Quixotic as it may sound, while at Verdun, I apologized as a US army veteran to France’s fallen soldiers for the slander and disgraceful lies hurled at their memory by American know-nothings and pro-Israel neo-con pundits who poured venom on the French for not agreeing to President George Bush’s imperial oil war against Iraq.

‘Defeat monkeys’ .... ‘surrender specialists’ ..... ‘never won a war’ ... ‘always saved by Americans’ ... ‘in war, like an accordion, useless and noisy..’ ‘cowards’ ... were hurled at France by American commentators. The internet filled with anti-French jokes and lists of French military defeats.

I invite all those flag waving, fire-breathing American couch patriots who called French cowards to visit Verdun. The air here still stinks of death; only deformed, stunted bushes grow on its poisoned soil. In the towering gray stone Ossuary repose bone pieces of 135,000 men.

In 1916, the Germans sought a decisive battle on the strategic heights above Verdun, where they planned to bleed France’s army to death with their massed artillery. On the first day of battle alone, French positions were inundated by one million heavy shells. The titanic bombardment went on for ten months, explosives against human flesh. Trenches and dugouts were pulverized. Entire French regiments were destroyed in hours.

The French commander, Gen. Nivelle, ordered his 2nd Army defending Verdun: “No surrender; no retreat, not even an inch: die where you stand.” And so they did.

On 4-5 June, the Germans poured 100,000 poison gas shells — chlorine, phosgene, and cyanide — onto only four kms of French-held front — then launched divisional assaults against the position. French soldiers had no gasmasks. Thousands died in hideous agony or were blinded. Yet they somehow held.

Shells churned the battlefield into a gigantic quagmire of mud, rotting corpses, body parts, dead horses, overhung by a toxic miasma of chlorine and mustard gas. Troops went days without food; they drank from shell craters filled with bodies, and often drowned in them. German flamethrowers inflicted frightful casualties. Shells rained down round the clock. Every tiny elevation, every fort, became a little Thermopylae.

At the height of the German attack on Fort Vaux, over 2,000 heavy shells an hour, some 405mm 1,000 kg monsters, were exploding each on its roof and glacis. When we today talk about soldier’s combat stress, think of the heroic garrison of Vaux, burned, gassed, poisoned by toxic smoke, dying of thirst, fearing they would be buried alive at any moment, yet fighting on. The French lost 100,000 casualties trying to retake another fort, Douaumont.

Three-quarters of the French army, an entire generation of France’s men, passed through the inferno of Verdun. Units stayed in line until they had lost 60 per cent casualties. Every town and village in France bears a war memorial with names of its sons fallen at Verdun. The heights above the Meuse River became France’s Calvary; ‘They shall not pass’ the army’s and nation’s credo.

The attacking Germans fought, as always, like lions, losing 400,000 dead. They almost broke through, but were finally held at the last line of French defences, at fearsome sacrifice. French soldiers fought like tigers, with their legendary fury and elan: over 430,000 died at Verdun; 800,000 were gassed or crippled for life. Bones are still unearthed here today, 87 years later; French metros and busses only recently ended reserved seating for ‘mutilated war veterans.’ After the war, there were not enough young Frenchmen to farm the fields or produce children.

In the end, the French held Verdun. In this battle alone, France lost almost 1.5 times total US losses in all of World War II, and 20 per cent of its nearly two million dead from 1914 to 1918.

To the northwest of here is Sedan. In May, 1940, the German XIX Panzer Corps raced, negotiated the dense Ardennes Forest and fought across the Meuse, dividing, then shattering the French army. Italy attacked in the south.

The French did not simply surrender, as some Americans claim. Their army fought valiantly, but was overwhelmed and torn apart by German’s high-tech military machine, just as Iraq’s outdated forces were recently obliterated by high-tech US forces.—Copyright Margolis, 2003.

The Saddam Hussein contract

SO far no weapons of mass destruction have been found, which, of course, is the main reason we invaded Iraq.

A runner-up reason is that we wanted to destroy Saddam Hussein. I don’t know if he is dead or not, but a guess is that it cost $75 billion to knock him off.

I thought this was cheap until I ran into Ungaro Piccolo, the godfather of the Rizzotto family.

He was walking down the street in his bathrobe and I invited him into Starbucks for a cup of coffee.

He said, “You paid too much to send Hussein to the fishes.”

“Seventy-five billion dollars is not an expensive price to pay to eliminate the cruelest and most brutal dictator in the world.”

“The Rizzotto family could have done it for one billion, plus the cost of cement shoes when we dumped him into the Tigris.”

“Why didn’t you tell the White House about that?”

Rizzotto said, “We bid on the job but we demanded certain things.”

“Like what?”

“We asked for the loan shark rights to Basra and the looting rights to Baghdad.”

“That isn’t asking for much. If you had gotten the contract, how would you have accomplished the mission?”

“I would have gotten two of my most trusted capos. We knew that Saddam had lunch in a restaurant before he went into his bunker.”

“And would you have shot him right on the street?”

“No, there would be too many witnesses. The capos would grab Saddam and throw him in the back seat of a Humvee and drive him to a quiet place near the river where we’d make him get on his knees and beg for his life.”

“Why not just shoot him?”

“We’d want the embedded correspondents to witness it because we would have gotten a half billion for capturing him and a half billion for finishing the job.”

“Before you fit him for his cement shoes, would you have allowed the networks to take pictures?”

“They can take pictures of Saddam, but not of my soldiers.”

“How would your people have gotten out of Iraq?”

“We would make arrangements for them to enter the Federal Witness Protection Programme to give them new names and jobs in Brooklyn.”

I said, “It is my personal opinion you would have done it so much better than the coalition forces bombing every palace in Iraq.”

The godfather said, “It’s too late.”

I said, “When it comes to Americans knocking off dictators, money is no object. No one is complaining about the $75 billion.”

The old man said, “Well, I’ve got to get going. I have a cocaine delivery coming in from Mexico and I’m having a war with the Linguini family over the white slavery rights to New Jersey.”

I watched him fade off into the sunset, his bathrobe flapping in the wind.—Dawn/Tribune Media Services

The return bus ticket

By F.S. Aijazuddin


IT was an unlikely backdrop for such a venue; it consisted of a massive reproduction of the Alamgiri gate of Lahore’s Fort and covered the entire stage wall of the Vigyan Bhavan in New Delhi. The date was April 21, 2001 (just over two years ago), and the occasion a celebration convened by Indian Sikhs to mark the bicentenary of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s coronation that had been held within Lahore’s Fort soon after he had captured it two hundred years ago.

I was invited to deliver the keynote address at the convention, and I found myself scheduled to speak after Khushwant Singh and before the chief guest, the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Of course, Khushwant Singh’s speech was as irrepressible and witty as his articles, and as mischievous and irreverent as only a literary doyen of his stature could dare to be in the presence of (and occasionally at the expense of) his own prime minister, who had been brought to power through a coalition with the Sikh Akali Dal party.

I realized that as a Pakistani Muslim I would need to be more circumspect, for not only would I be addressing an audience congregated in that hall of right-wing, hyper-political Sikhs, but the entire proceedings were being broadcast live across India on Doordarshan TV. I decided to take my cue from the immense ochre-orange backdrop of the Lahore Fort and opened my speech quoting a Punjabi adage: Jine Lahore na vaikhya, au jamiya nahin / Anyone who has never visited Lahore has never been truly born.

I noticed the prime minister whisper something to his Sikh host (he was asking for a translation), and then make a few notes while I was making my speech, in particular when I said: “In 1999, you undertook an arduous bus yatra with the city of Lahore as your destination. On the night of your arrival, you spoke within the Lahore Fort (Ranjit Singh’s fort) and heard your counterpart recite your poem advocating coexistence. I listened to you again the following afternoon, on the lawns of Government House, when you addressed another larger audience.”

“During your speech that afternoon, you had asked: ‘What can be achieved in only twenty-four hours?’ And then you answered yourself with another question: ‘What cannot be achieved within twenty-four hours?’ Similarly, one could ask today: What could anyone achieve within only one lifetime? And yet what cannot be achieved within a lifetime? Maharaja Ranjit Singh demonstrated what one man could achieve and did, even in the face of discouraging odds. Sir, both Maharaja Ranjit Singh and his Foreign Minister Fakir Azizuddin learned, and therefore never forgot, that diplomatic relations between states are rarely smooth and never free of pitfalls, especially if they happen to be between neighbours.”

When it was his turn to speak, the prime minister began by alluding to my opening remark, saying that he had been to Lahore and therefore regarded himself as fully born and alive. “Fakir sahib has reminded me of my bus yatra to Lahore,” he continued. “I went there with great hopes,” he said, “but then...”, and he let his voice trail into a descent of failed expectations.

I met Shri Vajpayee briefly again after the function was over. He was standing in a small group, flanked by the Punjab chief minister, S. Prakash Singh Badal, Sirdar Dhinsa (the union minister for agriculture) and S. Manmohan Singh, former finance minister and now a prominent leader of the Congress (I) party. The prime minister beckoned me forward.

“I still recall the lines of the poem you recited in Lahore,” I told him. “Ham jang na hone dainge, khoon ka rang na hone dainge / We will not permit another war, we will not allow blood to leave a stain.”

“But there was war,” he responded.

“I know,” I said, “but there are millions on both sides of the border who regret the events that happened after your visit.”

“Yes,” he replied. “That is why I stopped where I did in my speech and did not continue any further.” We both knew what he meant. He was referring to the Kargil episode.

Since that brief contact two years ago in the Vigyan Bhavan — an encounter that an Indian prime minister will understandably not even remember but one that I cannot ever forget — relations between our two countries have oscillated between two extremes — between neo-peace and neo-war, between the optimistic reception of President Pervez Musharraf in New Delhi, the failure of the subsequent talks at Agra, the massive troop concentrations on the common border, the provocative cross-border infiltration, and the steps taken by both sides along the way that could have led to mutual annihilation, had Vajpayee not stopped short as he did during his speech that afternoon in Vigyan Bhavan.

The responsibility for the divisive Iron Curtain that has been raised during the past two years with such force from Kashmir to the Rann of Kutch must go in unequal parts to both the Indian prime minister and the Pakistani president. No modern leaders after Kennedy and Khrushchev during the Cuban missile crisis of the early 1960s have maintained such an intense level of confrontation, daring each other to blink first. During this period, both leaders have found themselves caught between a private inclination towards pragmatism and the public posture of hardliners to whom compromise or conciliation was the opposite of success — an indefensible act of appeasement, “a defeat without a war”, as Winston Churchill described Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Pact with Hitler in 1939.

Today, suddenly, both India and Pakistan have begun a level of dialogue at the highest level that was almost inconceivable during the past twelve months. It is as if each has admitted finally that while conventional war may be a solution of sorts, a nuclear war carries within it all the moral stigma and the brutal, irreversible arithmetic of a final solution, and that the true alternative to peace is not yet another conflict but yet another effort at constructive peace. ‘Peace,’ a poet once wrote, ‘hath higher tests of manhood than battle ever knew.’ It is a sentiment that obviously carries some weight in the mind of another poet who happens also to be a prime minister in New Delhi.

It is significant that this peace overture — the latest of a pattern that began with Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto in the 1990s and continued until Vajpayee’s meeting with Nawaz Sharif at Lahore in 1999 — is being revived when an elected government (however precariously poised) is in place in Islamabad. Although Prime Minister Jamali cannot claim to have the stature of being a popularly elected leader, representative of the whole of Pakistan, nor does he possess the authority to make a commitment across a negotiating table that could not be overturned by someone else, he is all that Pakistan has to offer and all that the Indians will have to talk to and to obtain an agreement from. Form in this case will have to substitute for substance.

It remains to be seen whether the proposed dialogue will be bilateral or triangular. Those who never forget history will see a continuum of control, held in the hands of a Pakistani president who still possesses a power under Article 58 2(b) to remove a prime minister and parliament, a president who happens simultaneously to be the Chief of Army Staff, and a serving veteran of the Lahore, Kargil and Agra episodes.

And yet, conversely, it could be argued that neither the Indians nor the Pakistanis (regardless of the gratuitous encouragement of well-wishers shouting encouragement from the sidelines) would have taken such a portentous step had there not been a seriousness of intent on both sides, a reasonable expectation of success rather than an anticipation of failure, and a realization that, while peace in some parts of the world (Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East) can be underwritten by a superpower whom its president Franklin D. Roosevelt described as ‘the arsenal of democracy’, the road to peace — even in this combustible part of the subcontinent — does not have to pass necessarily through the barrel of the gun. It can follow a route as mundane as a bus yatra.

At the end of my brief conversation with Prime Minister Vajpayee in the Vigyan Bhavan that afternoon in April 2001, I felt emboldened by his accessibility to ask him something.

“Prime Minister, do you mind if I ask you a question?” He nodded acquiescence.

“When you returned from your bus yatra to Lahore,” I asked him, “I hope you did not throw away the return ticket.”

He smiled wryly but did not respond. I believe he has now given me his answer.

US presence in Iraq

SECRETARY of Defence Donald H. Rumsfeld was asked the other day how large a force the United States would have to keep in Iraq, and for how long. “We’re going to have as many people in there as we need for as long as we need them,” he answered.

“We will also have as few people as possible, but as many as there are necessary, and we’ll stay as short a time as possible, but as long as is necessary.” Clear enough? If not, too bad: The Bush administration hasn’t been willing to be any more forthcoming about what the US commitment to Iraq will amount to.

In fact, says Mr. Rumsfeld, anyone who dares think the administration should offer more specific answers “just doesn’t understand the variables that are involved.” No doubt many factors are in play; among them should be congressional and public opinion. But the administration doesn’t want to account to Congress or the public in any detail, and so far Congress hasn’t tried very hard to elicit an accounting.

—The Washington Post

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