India and Pakistan's hope after Osama

12 May 2011

Bin Laden's demise may mark a turning point in the relationship between India and Pakistan.

Published at
The Guardian

Osama bin Laden's killing is a potential turning point for India-Pakistan relations. The Indian government reacted to the news with an instant "I told you so" – the discovery of Bin Laden's safe house next door to the military academy in Abbottabad vindicates India's longstanding assessment that Pakistan has become a haven for jihadi extremism and the fountainhead of terrorism. The United States committed a historic blunder in trusting Islamabad. It failed to see the links between various pro-al-Qaida/Taliban groups and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). This was of a piece with the official Indian reaction to the 9/11 attacks, which emphasised almost gloatingly that India had long suffered Islamist terrorism exactly the way the US did in 2001, but the world ignored this.

Anti-Pakistan Indian military analysts celebrated the reassertion of the United States' hard power and clamoured for Indian "covert operations" to take out the Pakistan-based leadership of groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, implicated in the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. Pakistan responded by warning that its retaliation would produce a "terrible catastrophe".

 India had long suffered Islamist terrorism exactly the way the US did in 2001, but the world ignored this.

Mercifully the bellicose mood is now giving way in India to more sober approaches favouring a continuation of the dialogue with Pakistan that began in February. This shift springs from the realisation that suspension of talks for two years didn't force Pakistan to act resolutely to dismantle the domestic "terrorist infrastructure"; a new strategy of engagement is necessary.

New Delhi's willingness to explore the possibility of promoting bilateral trade, relaxing visa restrictions and resolving long-festering boundary disputes is welcome. That said, India has still not developed a vision or strategy to address the sizeable pro-peace constituency that exists in Pakistan, which would like to see Pakistan become a stable, moderate democracy and full civilian control to be established over the army and the ISI.

This constituency is likely to become stronger as Pakistan emerges from confused and contradictory responses to the traumatic discovery of Bin Laden's sanctuary and the duplicitous role of the intelligence service, the ISI, regarding jihadi groups. Bin Laden's killing has put the army on the defensive.

A crucial condition for strengthening Pakistan's civilian government and taming (some would say dismantling) the ISI is removal of the veto power the army wields over policy towards India and Afghanistan. The first is Kashmir-obsessed, and sees India as an implacable enemy with whom peaceful coexistence is impossible.

As for Afghanistan, the Pakistan army sees it as vital to achieving "strategic depth" with which to defend itself against Indian "aggression". It also denies India's historical ties with Afghanistan and the utility of India's aid programme, which has earned it tremendous popular goodwill. India can and should take the initiative in breaking the logjam through unilateral steps such as;

  • opening up its market unconditionally to Pakistani goods and services;
  • encouraging joint ventures in energy (especially renewables); IT, banking and industry;
  • a liberal visa regime that dismantles existing restrictions such as city-specific short-term visas;
  • and promoting tourism and cultural and educational exchanges.

Simultaneously India should resume its "back channel" dialogue on Kashmir, which produced dramatic gains until it was abandoned in 2007, including a tentative agreement on porous borders, gradual demilitarisation and increasing autonomy and self-rule for various sub-regions of undivided Jammu and Kashmir. This will gain credibility and momentum if India substantially withdraws its military presence in the Kashmir Valley.

Pakistan's two-track policy of hunting with the American hounds and running with the jihadi hare has failed. It has increased extremist violence and caused 30,000 civilian deaths. It has brought Pakistan international disgrace. This approach must be replaced by a strengthening of the civilian government and a determined fight against extremism. The reform won't succeed unless India radically alters its Pakistan policy and is seen as a potential ally which has a huge stake in a peaceful, terror-free and prosperous subcontinent.