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Can India and Pakistan Fight Terror Together?


Inseparable by geography, Pakistan and India are Siamese twins that have emerged together from the womb of history.  For better or for worse, their futures will always remain inextricably tied together.

Today, one of the two is in deep trouble. The ferocious militant fanaticism of Pathan tribals, once sequestered in the mountains of Waziristan and Swat, has migrated down into the plains and across the country. Every city of Pakistan has been attacked, some repeatedly and without respite. With threats, abductions, beheadings, and daily suicide bombings, extremists have drastically changed the way Pakistanis live.

Just a couple of months ago, Pakistanis had heaved a sigh of relief. A brief lull in terrorist attacks had followed the army’s successful operation against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Swat, and the killing by an American drone of TTP’s supremo, Baitullah Mehsud. Some hubris-filled "analysts" – who incessantly chatter on Pakistan’s numerous private television channels – claimed that the TTP had been mortally wounded. But they were dead wrong.

Islamabad is now a city of fear as the TTP retaliates. Traffic crawls past concrete blocks placed across its roads as helmeted soldiers peer suspiciously from behind their machine-guns. Restaurants barely function, and markets are deserted. Still, the attackers appear unstoppable and, as in Peshawar, they have paralyzed the city. Some attacks are more spectacular than others, but even the outstanding ones are forgotten once the next one happens. Explosives inside a car blow up over a hundred shoppers in Peshawar’s crowded Meena Bazaar; a suicide bomber detonates himself in the girls’ cafeteria of the International Islamic University in Islamabad; three simultaneous attacks hit police institutes in Lahore; school children are shredded by ball bearings from a suicide bomber’s exploding jacket in Kohat,…

Other recent attacks – against hard targets – were even more dramatic. Just days earlier the headlines had been dominated by Taliban militants who had stormed the apparently impregnable General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi, Islamabad’s sister city. The 20-hour siege, followed diligently by private television channels, showed meticulous planning and execution that culminated in hostage-taking and killing. Still more recently, the heavily protected ISI headquarters in Peshawar was blown up by a suicide car bomber. The message was clear: no place in Pakistan is safe any more, not even the safest ones – particularly those belonging to former handlers and mentors.

Incredibly, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, says that Pakistan is "compiling hard evidence of India’s involvement" in terrorist attacks upon Pakistan’s public and its armed forces. If he, and the Interior Minister, are correct then we must conclude that the Indians are psychotics possessed with a death wish, or perhaps plain stupid. While India’s assistance for Baloch insurgents could conceivably make strategic sense, helping the jihadists simply does not.

As Pakistan staggers from one bombing to the other, some Indians must be secretly pleased. Indeed, there are occasional verbalizations: Is this not sweet revenge for the horrors of Mumbai perpetrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba? Shouldn’t India feel satisfaction as Pakistan reels from the stinging poison of its domestically reared snakes?

But most Indians are probably less than enthusiastic in stoking fires across the border. In fact, the majority would like to forget that Pakistan exists. With a 6% growth rate, booming hi-tech exports, and expectations of a semi-superpower status, they feel that India has no need to engage a struggling Pakistan with its endless litany of problems.

Of course, some would like to hurt Pakistan. Extremists in India ask: shouldn’t one increase the pain of a country – with which India has fought three bloody wars – by aiding its enemies? Perhaps do another Bangladesh on Pakistan someday?

These fringe elements, fortunately, are inconsequential today. Rational self-interest demands that India not aid jihadists. Imagine the consequences if central authority in Pakistan disappears or is sharply weakened. Splintered into a hundred jihadist lashkars, each with its own agenda and tactics, Pakistan’s territory would become India’s eternal nightmare. When Mumbai-II occurs – as it surely would in such circumstances – India’s options in dealing with nuclear Pakistan would be severely limited.

The Indian Army would be powerless. As the Americans have discovered at great cost, the mightiest war machines on earth cannot prevent holy warriors from crossing borders. Internal collaborators, recruited from a domestic Muslim population that feels itself alienated from Hindu-India, would connive with jihadists. Subsequently, as Indian forces retaliate against Muslims – innocent and otherwise – the action-reaction cycle would rip the country apart. 

So, how can India protect itself from invaders across its western border and grave injury? Just as importantly, how can we in Pakistan assure that the fight against fanatics is not lost?

Let me make an apparently outrageous proposition: in the coming years, India’s best protection is likely to come from its traditional enemy, the Pakistan Army. Therefore, India ought to now help, not fight, against it.

This may sound preposterous. After all, the two countries have fought three and a half wars over six decades. During periods of excessive tension, they have growled at each other while meaningfully pointing towards their respective nuclear arsenals. Most recently, after heightened tensions following the Mumbai massacre, Pakistani troops were moved out from NWFP towards the eastern border. Baitullah Mehsud’s offer to jointly fight India was welcomed by the Pakistan Army.

And yet, the imperative of mutual survival makes a common defense inevitable. Given the rapidly rising threat within Pakistan, the day for joint actions may not be very far away.

Today Pakistan is bearing the brunt. Its people, government and armed forces are under unrelenting attack. South Waziristan, a war of necessity rather than of choice, will certainly not be the last one. A victory here will not end terrorism, although a stalemate will embolden jihadists in South Punjab, including Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed. The cancer of religious militancy has spread across Pakistan, and it will take decades to defeat.

This militancy does not merely exist because America occupies Afghanistan. A US withdrawal, while welcome, will not end Pakistan’s problems. As an ideological movement, the jihadists want to transform society as part of their wider agenda. They ride on the backs of their partners, the mainstream religious political parties like Jamat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema-Pakistan. None of these have condemned the suicide bombings of Pakistani universities, schools, markets, mosques, police and army facilities.

Pakistan’s political leadership and army must not muddy the waters, especially now that public sanction has finally been obtained for fighting extremism in Swat and Waziristan. Self-deception weakens, and enormously increases vulnerability. Wars can only be won if nations have a clear rallying slogan. Therefore the battle against religious extremism will require identifying it – by name – as the enemy.

India should derive no satisfaction from Pakistan’s predicament. Although religious extremists see ordinary Muslims as munafiqs (hypocrites) – and therefore free to be blown up in bazaars and mosques – they hate Hindus even more. In their calculus, hurting India would buy even more tickets for heaven than hurting Pakistan. They dream of ripping apart both societies, or starting a war – preferably nuclear – between Pakistan and India.

A common threat needs a common defense. But this is difficult unless the Pakistan-India conflict is reduced in intensity. In fact the extremist groups that threaten both countries today are an unintended consequence of Pakistan’s frustrations at Indian obduracy in Kashmir.

To create a future working alliance with Pakistan, and in deference to basic democratic principles, India must therefore be seen as genuinely working towards some kind of resolution of the Kashmir issue. Over the past two decades India has been morally isolated from Kashmiri Muslims and continues to incur the very considerable costs of an occupying power in the Valley. Indian soldiers continue to needlessly die – and to oppress and kill Kashmiri innocents.

It is time for India to fuzz the LOC, make it highly permeable, and demilitarize it up to some mutually negotiated depth on both sides. Without peace in Kashmir the forces of cross-border jihad, and its hate-filled holy warriors, will continue to receive unnecessary succor.

India also needs to allay Pakistan’s fears on Balochistan. Although Pakistan’s current federal structure is the cause of the problem – a fact which the government is now finally addressing through the newly announced Balochistan package – nevertheless it is possible that India is aiding some insurgent groups. Statements have been made in India that Balochistan provides New Delhi with a handle to exert pressure on Pakistan. This is unacceptable.

While there is no magic wand, confidence building measures (CBMs) continue to be important for managing the Pakistan-India conflict and bringing down the decibel level of mutual rhetoric. To be sure, CBMs can be easily disparaged as palliatives that do not address the underlying causes of a conflict. Nevertheless, looking at those initiated over the years shows that they have held up even in adverse circumstances. More are needed.

The reason for India to want rapprochement with Pakistan, and vice versa, has nothing to do with feelings of friendship or goodwill. It has only to do with survival. For us in Pakistan, this is even more critical.

The author teaches at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. A shorter version of this article was published simultaneously on 28 November 2009 by two of the largest newspapers in Pakistan (Dawn) and India (The Hindu)

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