Wednesday, December 3, 2008

How to deal with Pakistan following Mumbai

It is slightly depressing, yet totally foreseeable, to see the reactions following the terrorist attacks on Mumbai. It seems that everyone follow the script: the BJP talks tough, the Congress tries to look tough with Pakistan, Pakistan tries to appease India while Indians put all the blame on Pakistan. Those reactions are normal given the history of the region, it seems things have not changed much since the debate between Jinnah and Gandhi.

But an interesting aspect is that the reactions have been fairly muted until now; there is no trouble in Kashmir, there have been no violent riots in India and Pakistan is trying to be helpful. While nationalist tendencies push both countries to follow the usual route, it seems both governments try to keep the lid on the boiling cauldron. I find this an encouraging sign. This event could end up being important for the region because it might make the civilian government and the army in Islamabad realize that they are once again losing control of their country and their foreign policy.

When I heard that Obama was planning to spend energy trying to solve the Kashmir crisis, I said it was a dangerous waste of time. It was not because I did not believe that settling the Kashmir issue was worthwhile, it was because I did not believe it was possible under the current circumstance; largely because there is no consensus that could be achieved which would have widespread support in both nations and that the governments (especially Pakistan) have no control over actors that could easily spoil negotiations. This is exactly what happened in Mumbai. While the specific of the attacks could not be predicted, anyone could have predicted that third parties would try something similar and what would be the reactions.

So what is the solution? Like I said before the attacks, Obama should drop his Kashmir plans. They were unrealistic before the attacks and they look like daydreaming now. But I think he should attempt to spin recent events in Islamabad in a way that could benefit the region and the US. The argument would be that those attacks, as well as the recent Islamabad Marriot bombing show that the strategy of using armed groups to achieve political objectives might be good in the short term but ultimately lead to a loss of control over the country. I agree with Juan Cole that the attacks are more than likely a splinter group of a Kashmiri mujaheddin organization. To the government this means that they have their hands tied, they can not move the country in a direction if the third party groups they funded in the past disagree.

Zardari would be obviously in agreement with this, but the goal would be to bring the army to agree. Zardari is took weak to take on the ISI and the now largely independent Islamists, but with the army on board he might be able to turn things around. The problem is that since General Zia's coup in 1977, the army has been packed with fundamentalists; but even if they might be sympathetic to the aims of Islamists, their interests lie with the state (they are the state's strongest institution after all).

So what is my solution? Drop the ridiculous attempts at peace with Kashmir and attempt to convince state actors that clamping down on non-state organizations is in their interests. No durable peace will be achieved unless the Pakistani state can regain the control it once had, and the attacks of the last years (Bhutto, Marriot, Mumbai) might begin to make people in power realize that they need to take action for their own good (and not to please some hated distant US).

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