February issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Q: The new civilian government in Pakistan and the Indian government had made some headway towards normalisation through composite dialogue but that was disrupted by the attacks in Mumbai. How do we restore the confidence that’s been shattered and what are the long-term impediments to a sustained peace process?

A: The last six weeks prove that Pak-Indian relations are accident-prone. Normalisation of relations and improved contact are undoubtedly very desirable given the history of confrontation between India and Pakistan. But the real question is, how to do it? There are a number of issues between us. Some are problems and some are disputes; understanding this distinction is important.
It is only natural for a democratic government to seek good relations with India and to see how far normalisation will lead. We want people-to-people contacts, while they want trade. But here we have to be a little careful. First, we shouldn’t get into a situation where we turn into just a market for India. A good trading relationship [entails] a certain degree of balance … so that one is not left merely at the receiving end. Secondly, India has the ability and the capacity to produce a very wide range of products, and at lower prices than in our industries, whereas our reach is a little limited. So I would say, trade with India when it is to your advantage.

By all means, buy [Indian goods], but we shouldn’t end up having our industries slowly closing down. Look at the other neighbouring countries of India. Look at Nepal — totally dependent on India. Bangladesh — in a huge trade deficit, which they’ll never be able to minimise. Sri Lanka has had some advantages; they’ve signed this free trade agreement with India, and had some quantum jump in its exports to India.

But real normalisation is only possible when your fundamental disputes are resolved. Our leaders used to ask themselves: What is the price you are willing to pay for friendly relations with India? And this decision is for the public to make. If the verdict of the people is that we move away from these disputes, the government should try that. I personally feel that the people do want better relations with India, but on the basis of honour and dignity and without compromising the rights of the Kashmiris.

The pace of the composite dialogue was slow. There was cosmetic improvement, in some areas, but there was virtually no progress on disputes like Kashmir, Siachen or Sir Creek. And then, of course, we have a new serious issue: the water dispute.

The Mumbai incident was a huge tragedy for India. Right now there is a lot of anger in India. This prevalent level of tension is likely to continue for a while, certainly until the elections [in India], which are expected in the next few months. The main concern for the international community is that the tensions between India and Pakistan do not lead to war, and that should also be our concern. The best course of action for both countries is to seek an early resumption of dialogue. Now India is saying, no talks until Pakistan shows sincerity in approaching the problem of terrorism and dissolves the infrastructure of terrorism. These are huge demands but the government of Pakistan has offered to cooperate. They have offered joint investigations, they’ve offered to send a delegation led by the foreign minister, but so far the Indian response to these proposals has been ‘no.’

The Indian government is continuing their propaganda against Pakistan, branding it as the epicentre of terrorism. It seems like they are trying to tarnish Pakistan’s image, brand it as a country promoting terrorism, isolate it in the international community, and hope that this propaganda would lead the international community into taking some kind of action against Pakistan.

On the whole, I feel the Indian attitude has been extremely arrogant, extremely demanding, and I can’t see how the Pakistani government can concede to Indian pressure. Although, I would say, the Pakistani leadership initially went the extra mile but it also, of course, made mistakes. Now, I think the policy of the Pakistani government has stabilised. They are clear that we want to cooperate, but India must reciprocate.

Q: Originally, India was, in fact, taking a softer stance, but then felt that Pakistan was dragging its feet, and sending unclear signals. For example, the government said it would send the director-general of the ISI to Delhi, but then retracted. Then, there was the sacking of Mahmood Durrani, the national security adviser, posing the question, ‘Why was he sacked if he was telling the truth?’ Is there a problem of communication on our part?

A: I think the Indian attitude is to portray Pakistan as an irresponsible country that needs to be contained. India thinks it’s the United States of America of South Asia. But this is where they are mistaken. They want that kind of freedom of action against Pakistan, which they think the US has arrogated to itself in FATA. So it’s not a question of a lack of communication. Of course, it is wrong for governments to be conducting foreign policy through the media, but I think serious efforts have been made by Pakistan not only to approach India directly but also through the US, Britain and China, and some key Islamic countries. India is not at all receptive.

Q: Some have expressed disappointment that China did not come down squarely on Pakistan’s side. Does that have significant ramifications?

A: China is Pakistan’s most sincere friend in this region. They have never let us down. China also has a history of problems with India. That, in itself, somewhat limits their role in South Asia. Their relations may have improved over the decades but it’s not a relationship where China has influence in Delhi. Also, please don’t forget, China is no longer a country that’s isolated, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, when very few countries had ties with them. Today, China has links with almost every country in the world, so their responsibilities have changed. I think we should respect that, and not say, ‘Here is a friend who hasn’t done much.’ They’ve done what they could do. You shouldn’t have wild expectations of anybody, whether they’re your friends or sitting on the fence.

Q: While we’re talking about international actors, has the recent US nuclear deal meant a realignment that Pakistan will have to adapt to?

A: In a broader sense, for a long time the US was, shall we say, pursuing India because it looked upon India as a country that was emerging on the international horizon. With a population of a billion, a huge industrial base, and the third largest military power, it was a serious candidate in their pursuit of the containment of China. And, of course, the price that India demanded was that it be recognised as a nuclear power. To the credit of Indian diplomacy, I think it’s fair to say they have succeeded.

Now, this is where the US has ill-treated Pakistan. They have de-hyphenated this relationship. India is now perceived to be in a different league. They have described India as a responsible nuclear power, whereas they have deemed us an irresponsible nuclear power because of the issue of proliferation of nuclear technology and the Kargil operation, which to the Western mind was an irresponsible adventure. So, this has certainly given India more confidence in dealing with Pakistan.

Q: Does that limit Pakistan’s options?

A: You know, Pakistan is in a fairly difficult strategic situation at the moment. We now have this tension on the eastern front, a live conflict on the western border, and a serious internal problem. So any pressure from India complicates the situation. And if it is not handled with skill, wisdom and vision, we could end up facing serious consequences.

Q: There are perceptions that the civilian government wants to pursue peace and normalisation, but the army won’t allow them the space.

A: I was surprised, as I’m sure many Pakistanis too were, when they heard one of our leaders say India has never been a threat to Pakistan. That was really quite a shocking statement, [and showed] that obviously they were not even familiar with the India-Pakistan relationship of the last 60 years. Then, it is decided unilaterally to change the nuclear doctrine. Then, India is offered the transit right to Afghanistan and Central Asia and Indian air violations are described as a “technical accident.” I mean, obviously it showed that the whole approach is dysfunctional. I can’t imagine any serious institution in Pakistan suggesting these things to our leadership. Many people want to know who is in charge — the president or the prime minister? Let’s not forget, foreign policy is really an extension of what’s happening at home. You’re only as good abroad as you are at home.

Q: But there are those who argue that the army and the ISI haven’t given up the jihad option in Kashmir, which constrains things at home. Or has the army made a strategic shift that has been overlooked?

A: I’m not privy to what the army is thinking at the moment. But, I think, if they have made a commitment to fight terrorism and extremism in FATA and NWFP, they can’t really have double standards in dealing with the overall situation of extremism and terrorism. As you know, Musharraf had made a commitment in 2004, to then prime minister Vajpayee, during the SAARC Summit. They signed an agreement that Pakistan would not allow its territory to be used against India. And on that score, Pakistan did meet its commitment. There are several statements from the Indian leaders and their military leadership that the flow of cross-border activity has gone down.

The main problem with that agreement is that it’s a stick that Musharraf presented to India to beat us with every time there is an incident in India. In my opinion, this was one of the worst decisions. First of all, you admit that you are training [terrorists] and sending them across. Secondly, no distinction was made between terrorism and support for a genuine freedom movement. Thirdly, India is the judge to decide who is a terrorist and when cross-border activity ceases. And why should they let you off the hook? Now you can see that they mention this agreement in every statement that they make, repeating it to the international community: “This is the commitment Pakistan made, and it is not honouring its commitment.” And you can see the knee-jerk reaction — within minutes of the incidents in Mumbai, they accused Pakistan.

Q: But isn’t it in India’s interest that the civilian government is strengthened and that the military and the hardliners are marginalised?

A: I think India also has a responsibility as a neighbour to build a relationship with the present government in order to help strengthen democracy in the country.

As I said, this civilian leadership went the extra mile. What have they been rewarded with by the Indians? Accusations. In fact, a very devious approach can be seen. They’re trying to create fissures, misunderstandings between the civilian leadership and the military brass. I think it’s imperative for Pakistan’s leaders to ensure that there’s no crack in our consensus on how to deal with India. I think the All-Parties Conference that the prime minister convened was a very good initiative. They came out with a joint statement, which should be respected.

The Indians should know that the civilians are fully in charge. They should know that we want peace and we want dialogue but if they impose war, they should not be under any illusions that Pakistan will not respond.

Q: There is a new administration in the US. There is a democratic transition in Pakistan. Elections are coming up in India. The Kashmir dispute is getting renewed attention with, for example, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband in his Guardian article linking the reduction of terrorism in the region to resolution of the Kashmir dispute — and then, interestingly, the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba claiming it will abandon armed struggle if the Kashmiri right to self-determination is respected. How do you view the coming years?

A: First of all, we have to do our homework. Foreign policy cannot be conducted as only a reaction to events. With the new administration in the US, Pakistan has the opportunity to improve and develop the Pakistan-US relationship to our mutual advantage. At the moment, it is very uneven. The US is calling the shots and we are simply obeying them. We should be equal partners instead. There must be a respect for our sovereignty, which is being violated on a daily basis. These [drone] attacks [in FATA] are only aggravating the alienation in FATA against the Pakistani and the US governments. The Bush administration followed the most destructive policies possible, whereas the new leadership in the US is very able and can be reasoned with. This is the time we can prepare ourselves to deal with them and India. India must accept Pakistan as a neighbour, as an equal partner in peace. But if they only expect Pakistan to make concessions and to bow to their demands, it will not be conducive to durable peace in South Asia.