The ghastly attack on an army school in Peshawar last Tuesday appears to be a topping point, finally, in Pakistan’s existential struggle with terrorism.
The indications so far have been that there is an unprecedented groundswell of opinion within Pakistan that enough is enough and that the policy of appeasing the terrorist groups as instruments of regional policies in Afghanistan or the Indian state of Kashmir has come to haunt Pakistan itself and is threatening its own stability. Will the Pakistani leadership rise to the challenge?
An equally daunting challenge awaits the policymakers in New Delhi. How does the Indian leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi respond to the watershed event of last week in Peshawar?
Perhaps, the United States’ normalization with Cuba after fifty-three years of relentless, vicious confrontation holds an important lesson for the Indian and Pakistani leaderships.
The US-Cuba confrontation has been one of the most vicious in modern history. The US tried every trick in the trade to subvert and overthrow the socialist regime in Cuba. It seethed with anger that there could be an iconic figure like Fidel Castro right in its backyard defying its ditktat and being a ‘bad influence’ on the western hemisphere as a whole.
Washington tried repeatedly to assassinate Fidel, even attempted once to get his beard to turn prematurely grey so that he wouldn’t look so handsome and be charismatic. But all attempts failed and in a frank admission of defeat, Washington opted for a ‘course correction’ in its Cuba policy.
President Barack Obama remarked on Wednesday that the US opted to “cut loose the shackles of the past” based on a cool-headed realization that the “outdated approach” didn’t make sense. Indeed, such times arise in the life of nations and leadership is all about seizing them. Of course, no two analogous situations exist in politics and the India-Pakistan adversarial relationship has own complexities. But the salience is relevant – do not wait for time and tide to salvage failed policies, especially when a re-prioritization of national strategies is called for in a rapidly changing regional and international milieu.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi began well with a purposive initiative in May to engage his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. But then, for reasons that remain obscure, the momentum was lost. The grounds over which Delhi suspended the talks with Pakistan didn’t make sense and the fact of the matter is that no one knows whether it was a case of Modi turning cold on his track, or of running into obstacles from within his own camp even as his own political consolidation was incomplete – or, worse still, Delhi was merely dissimulating all along.
At any rate, revisionist tendencies soon crept to the centre stage – ‘tit-for-tat’ syndrome, provocative statements, self-righteous attitudes, security-driven policies and cat-and-mouse games at the LOC and the sheer absence of a ‘big picture’.
It has become difficult to judge whether Modi has a solution to the India-Pakistan problem or whether he is actually the problem, or maybe, he could be the problem and the solution himself. To complicate matters, the Pakistani opinion views him and the present government in Delhi rooted in right wing nationalist ideology with profound disquiet.
Anyhow, as the Modi government crosses the 200th day in office, the dismal picture that emerges is that like the previous government, it too appears to be meandering, and an impression becomes unavoidable that grandstanding could be masquerading as policy.
Meanwhile, in empirical terms, in bits and pieces, a ‘big picture’ is struggling to be born. The most frightening bit of course is a likelihood of the infamous AfPak (Afghan-Pakistan) region morphing into the AfPakIn (also embracing India). The United States has warned Delhi on the likelihood of large-scale terrorist strikes in the coming weeks.
However, all three countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – are partly in denial mode. All three are eager to project themselves as victims of terrorism and they are right in doing so. But the catch lies somewhere else. In none of them the security agencies are held up to public accountability, notwithstanding their claim to be functioning democracies.
The security agencies play a key role in the conduct of neighborhood policies but only a clutch of people at the pinnacle of political power in the respective capitals would even have the sense of what they could be actually up to.
All three countries have been leveling accusations one way or another regarding state-sponsored terrorism. Afghanistan alleges that Taliban insurgents who are threatening its stability operate from sanctuaries located in Pakistan and that these groups enjoy covert support. India has been demanding for a long time that Pakistan should dismantle its ‘terrorist infrastructure,’ punish the terrorists and extradite some of them to India to stand trial for crimes committed.
Pakistan of course denies that any of this is happening and in turn it airs the grievance that the deadly terrorist activities by the Afghan Taliban in the recent years aimed at destabilizing the country originate from Afghan soil and that the Indian and Afghan intelligence covertly promote those groups.
Suffice it to say, in this complicated situation where the lines between Kabul, Islamabad-Rawalpindi and Delhi are clogged with allegations and counter-allegations and lack transparency, a concerted, coordinated counter-terrorist work could not be undertaken in the region, which of course significantly increased the space and freedom for terrorist groups to operate in the region.
Compounding this has been the western military presence in the region. Most expert opinions agree that the US invasion of Afghanistan has been a failure as its purpose has been far from fulfilled. Nonetheless, it now transpires that there is gong to be a virtually open-ended US and NATO military presence in Afghanistan and that despite the claim by Obama that the war has ended, the American forces will continue to undertake combat missions, albeit selectively. To be sure, so long as the war continues, the region will remain in turmoil.
Meanwhile, the continuing war provides the alibi for the US troops to remain in Afghanistan and to project the NATO as a provider of security in the region. Without doubt, the US is also pursuing its geopolitical objectives in the region surrounding Afghanistan. In plain terms, while on the one hand the US claims to work for Afghan-Pakistan amity, it is also tapping into the mutual antipathies of these two countries to leverage influence. In a somewhat different way, though, the US is doing much the same thing with regard to India-Pakistan adversarial relationship – although it claims to have ‘de-hyphenated’ relationships with the two South Asian rivals.
Suffice it to say that the decades-old fratricidal strife in Afghanistan has been turned into a regional and global war with the protagonists involved in it pursuing multiple agendas, overtly and overtly. Unsurprisingly, the terrorist groups have been having a field day in the bargain. Is this – all of this, or at least a major part of it – about to change? That is the big question that arises in the aftermath of the Peshawar school attack last week.