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Pakistan is going through an unprecedented, incredibly painful internal transition, with democracy fighting to stay alive. The set of unedifying events on the LoC in the first week of this year just made things messier.
2013 will be a year that might actually define the future of Pakistan. Najam Sethi, one of Pakistan's best-known commentators, described what is at stake for his country in a recent article. "There are four arenas of change. The first is the military's national security paradigm, its very raison d' etre that defines Pakistan and its own role in it, pegged to India as the eternal enemy. The second is the military's political relationship with the civilians, pegged to the necessity of military supremacy over the political order in order to retain its monopoly over the definition of national security. The third is the military's relationship with America, pegged to the military's need of conventional state-of-the-art weapons and American money to pay for these. The fourth is the military's need for a growing economy, pegged to its budget and a growing army of angry, frustrated, alienated and jobless youngsters, which is increasingly turning to organised crime, insurgency and terrorism, thereby posing an internal security threat to the state. " In the past week alone, Pakistan has witnessed massive killings of Shia Hazaras in Balochistan, a "million-man march" by a self-styled Sufi cleric who parachuted into Pakistan from Canada not too long ago, and a call for the arrest of prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf by the Supreme Court. Fighting to keep a civilian government from falling prey to unspecified ambitions of unspecified actors among the military-intelligence complex, Pakistan also has a full-fledged Taliban insurgency on its borders, and an unstable Afghanistan where Pakistan ideally wants to install the other Taliban. Meanwhile, the economy is on a downward spiral and bilateral ties with the US are plummeting - the cup brimmeth over.
India is just emerging from its own first-of-a-kind popular protests against a brutal gangrape in New Delhi. The Indian economy, even though it is eight times the size of Pakistan, is headed into rough weather. The shocking lapses of governance as well as the spate of scams and corruption charges have left the Manmohan Singh government feeling battered on a number of fronts.
Both countries needed that LoC skirmish like they needed a hole in their head. Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's articulate foreign minister, later switched from being tough to conciliatory, even offering talks with her counterpart Salman Khurshid. That's not going to happen any time soon. But nobody wants to prolong this matter either. With Pakistan, we've been there and done it all - everything from war to refusal to play cricket has been tried, and has failed. In a strange sense, last week's loud noises from India were also an expression popular frustration - at Pakistan for its continued excesses, and at the Indian government for what is seen as continued concessions without any paybacks.
The basic fact cannot be changed - Pakistan army is still on the job of pushing terrorists into India. No amount of MFN, people-to-people contacts or admissions of India's own aggressive behaviour will diminish that. So while engagement with Pakistan really has no substitute, we might have to take a different tack from now.
Although there is no specified articulation on the matter, there is a growing sense that the Indian Army might keep the LoC "alive" with a more "aggressive and offensive" posture, as Army chief Gen Bikram Singh indicated a few days ago. On the other hand, engagement at the civilian and popular level will be allowed to continue. So the army will do what it needs to do, hopefully, without being adventurist. Is this an optimal way to deal with what could spiral out of control? Perhaps not, say analysts. But it might be better than placing the government under extreme public pressure to take steps against Pakistan that either unravel the carefully crafted peace process or, if it is a weak government, like UPA-2, force them to escalate tensions with Pakistan to a point of no return.
How Pakistan deals with its current crises will also determine its future relations with India. As this edition went to press, Pakistan's political establishment had struck a deal with the latest white knight on a charger - a 62-year-old Sufi cleric from Canada, Tahir-ul-Qadri. Pakistan's civilian leaders appear to have banded together to take control of their collective political future. That is good news.
But that still leaves the allpowerful-but-no-longer-SO-powerful Pakistan army and its strategic choices for itself and Pakistan. The army versus the Taliban will be a significant battle for the soul of Pakistan. But this is nothing compared to the security cartwheels that the army will have to execute in Afghanistan. The Pakistan army is perhaps the single largest reason the Americans are exiting Afghanistan in a disarray of defeat. In an acknowledgement of Pakistan's continued "hold" over the jihadi enterprise - and the US failure to quell it - the US, led by ally UK, are backing an old plan - to make Pakistan the centrepiece of their Afghanistan resolution strategy.
This could be a sobering moment for Pakistan because the Afghan Taliban is notoriously independentminded and could turn against Pakistan once the Americans have left. On the other hand, this could be a triumphal moment for the army. They would have succeeded in getting the US out of Afghanistan with their strategic depth intact, if they play their cards right.
As for India, it is not going to fall for the MFN status "carrot" that Pakistan has been dangling. India-Pakistan ties seem unlikely to look in the short term.
Having said that, India can neither afford to lose the gains made from the peace process so far, nor allow Pakistan to hold a Damocles sword of terrorism or nuclear jihad. The difficulty is any government in New Delhi will have to walk a very fine line between concessions and paybacks. It will need greater interface between any ruling establishment and public opinion. The present government is lousy at it. Future governments should draw the right lessons.
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