India’s decision to resume dialogue with Pakistan is a triumph of faith over reason
The following is the original draft of my op-ed that appeared in the pages of the Wall Street Journal Asia earlier this week:
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waited until public memory of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai on 26th November 2008 faded to a level that it was politically feasible for him to resume the composite bilateral dialogue with Pakistan. The attacks had compelled him to reluctantly suspend official talks two years ago. Despite increasingly compelling evidence that the Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out those attacks with the connivance of the Pakistani military establishment, Islamabad has preferred to engage in a dilatory game of dossiers-and-lawsuits to avoid having to take any action against the perpetrators of one of the most provocative acts of terrorism in recent years. Yet, in the absence of the tiniest acts of good faith from his Pakistani counterparts, Prime Minister Singh has dogmatically persisted with his pursuit of dialogue — a policy which last week saw New Delhi effectively yielding to Pakistan’s demand of talks without preconditions.
Dialogue for Mr Singh is neither an eyewash to satisfy the international community nor a pragmatic policy tied to outcomes. It is almost a matter of faith, oblivious to facts or reason.
An earlier ‘joint anti-terrorism mechanism’ he and General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s erstwhile military dictator, put in place neither resulted in Islamabad winding down terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba nor in preventing attacks such as the one on Mumbai. Dr Singh pressed on nevertheless, yielding to demands made by Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani at successive summits, at considerable political costs to himself and his political party.
The fact that Pakistan’s post-Musharraf civilian leaders are powerless to deliver on anything substantial is immaterial to India’s prime minister. An earlier round of foreign minister-level talks ended in acrimony following public grandstanding by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, the leader of the Pakistani delegation. Meanwhile General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan’s army chief, has made no secret of his anti-India agenda. He has presided over terrorist attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul, a resurgence of infiltration of militants into the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir and was the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) when the Mumbai attacks were being planned. It may not be a mere coincidence that General Musharraf’s slide from power began around the time he presented to his top military colleagues the details of a back channel deal he had worked out with Dr Singh.
If General Musharraf couldn’t deliver on a deal at the height of his power, agreements with Pakistan’s civilians are unlikely to be worth the paper they are printed on. The military establishment’s stranglehold on Pakistan’s foreign policy coupled with the deep radicalisation of Pakistani society ought to give pause to anyone who believes that talking to Pakistan’s often pompous but powerless civilian politicians amounts to much. Dr Singh soldiers on nevertheless.
There is thus a considerable disconnect between India’s policy approach and the objective reality in Pakistan. Talks might even have worked if New Delhi had ratcheted up the engagement step-by-step in response to small, tangible acts of good faith by Islamabad. Now though, India’s decision to drop its insistence on action against the masterminds of the Mumbai attacks, will be interpreted as a victory by Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex. Much like the Kim Jong Il’s regime in North Korea, Pakistan’s military leaders reckon that they can use the shadow of the nuclear umbrella to get away with acts of aggression against their neighbour. This lets them use use brazen provocation as a low cost option to achieve their other geopolitical objectives. Reinforcing this calculus by rewarding aggression with unconditional talks is dangerous and encourages an encore.
Like Dr Singh, sections of India’s strategic establishment have allowed themselves to be convinced by the argument that there is no alternative to talks. They point to the lack of credible military options and the unacceptable risk of escalation to nuclear thresholds as the reason why. This is a false dichotomy. The reason Pakistan can afford to export terrorism to India, Afghanistan and elsewhere is because, at a fundamental level, it is bankrolled and bailed out by the United States, China and Saudi Arabia, among others. These powers, for reasons of their own, scaffold a state that has been on the brink for so long that its elite have mastered the art of playing from that position. So far, India has not meaningfully attempted to use its own relationships with Pakistan’s scaffold states to shape the behaviour of various state and non-state actors that operate from Pakistan. While there is a case for maintaining a restrained engagement with Islamabad through ordinary diplomatic relations, the real talks New Delhi should be pursuing are with the United States, China and Saudi Arabia.
After all, instead of pleading with delinquent teenagers, it is far better to talk to their legal guardians.
Update: Nirupama Rao, India’s foreign secretary, tweeted a response to say that “dialogue with (Pakistan) is not pursued in vacuum. Our terrorism-related concerns (are) not sacrificed by any measure” and “furthermore, our ties with Beijing, Riyadh and Washington (are utilised) to relay our concerns clearly.”