Is the India-Pakistan Thaw Losing Steam?

Malik’s maladroit visit is a harbinger of things to come

The headline visit to India this past weekend by Pakistan’s de-facto interior minister, Rehman Malik, was supposed to celebrate the latest milestone in the détente process that has picked up speed between the two countries over the last year and a half.  Instead, it may be a sign that the stirrings of peace are reaching their limit.

The highlight of the journey was to be the signing of a landmark visa agreement making cross-border travel easier, the most recent in a string of developments suggesting that the sibling states which were literally born at each other’s throats just might be able to establish a more normal and cooperative relationship.  Other recent positive signposts include the brief but productive mini-summit between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Easter Sunday in New Delhi – the first visit to India by a Pakistani head of state in seven years; the opening of a new customs facility at the Wagah border crossing to facilitate expanded trade links; Islamabad’s decision to grant “most favored nation” trade status to India; New Delhi’s move to permit foreign direct investment from Pakistan; and steps by both governments to allow banks from one country to set up shop in the other (see here and here).

All of this momentum raised hopes that the two rivals could make progress on their long-running territorial contestations, including the disputes over the Siachen Glacier, an uninhabitable stretch of the Himalayas, and Sir Creek, a patch of marshland dividing the Indian state of Gujarat and the Pakistani province of Sindh.  There was even talk of tackling the holy grail of the bilateral relationship: resolution of the perennially-inflamed dispute over the Kashmir region.  Helping things along was an informal but promising dialogue by retired senior military leaders from both countries about important confidence-building measures.

But Mr. Malik’s ill-starred trip is a reminder of how the annals of India-Pakistan relations are filled with false dawns.  He had originally proposed to come in late November, but Indian officials demurred due to the proximity of the fourth anniversary of the horrific Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, regarded by many as “India’s 9/11,” as well as the scheduled execution of Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani national who was the lone militant captured in the incident.  And once new dates were worked out, Malik’s arrival in New Delhi was delayed by four hours due to security clearance problems caused when he opted to fly in a Pakistan Air Force plane instead of the expected civilian aircraft.  The last-minute switch reportedly “threw the Indian security establishment into a tizzy.” The snafu was a reflection of the deep suspicions continuing plague bilateral relations, not to mention an incongruous start to an endeavor meant to ease travel barriers between the neighbors.

Even more problematic was how determined Malik seemed to be to use the visit to rub salt onto the still raw wounds India nurses from the Mumbai assaults:

  • He maintained that New Delhi only had itself to blame for failing to detect the reconnaissance activities conducted in the run-up to the strikes by David Coleman Headley (formerly known as Daood Sayed Gilani), a Pakistani-American who has pled guilty to charges of conspiring with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based jihadi group widely thought to be behind the attacks.
  • He further offended his hosts by declaring that Sayed Zabiuddin Ansari (also known as Abu Jundal and Abu Hamza), an Indian national suspected of playing a central role in the strikes, was actually in the employ of New Delhi’s security services.  This claim was quickly dismissed as “ridiculous” by R.K. Singh, the Indian home secretary.  Ansari, arrested last year in Saudi Arabia while traveling on a Pakistani passport, was deported to India this past summer after Riyadh disregarded Islamabad’s strenuous objections.  He is providing New Delhi with a trove of information about Pakistan’s intimate ties with jihadi groups targeting India.
  • Malik belittled the mountains of evidence provided by India and the United States that the Mumbai operation’s mastermind is Hafiz Muhammed Saeed, LeT’s founder who even now maintains a high profile in Pakistan.  His cavalier dismissal is all the more outrageous given the $10 million bounty Washington put on Saeed’s head this past summer; the Interpol notice for his arrest; his inclusion on a United Nations terrorist list; as well as the Pakistani government’s own pronouncement several years ago that “Hafiz Saeed at liberty is a security threat.”
  • Malik advised everyone in New Delhi that it was time to move beyond the focus on Mumbai and then compounded the offense by comparing the attacks to the Babri Masjid incident a decade ago, in which the destruction of a medieval Muslim mosque by Hindu zealots triggered weeks of destructive sectarian violence.
  • For good measure, Malik disparaged the memory of an Indian army officer who was tortured to death after being captured by Pakistani forces during the 1999 Kargil conflict.  Malik ludicrously attributed his death instead to the severe climatic conditions in the Himalayas.

All told, it was quite a gratuitous performance, one that only reinforced the many doubts in New Delhi about Islamabad’s seriousness in the détente process.*  It embarrassed Sushil Kumar Shinde, the recently-appointed Indian home minister, who reportedly invited Malik over the objections of his Cabinet colleagues.**  Mr. Shinde made his displeasure known by shelving a planned joint communique.

Malik’s meeting with Prime Minister Singh also was cut short – to 15 minutes – but it was still enough time for the soft-spoken Indian to bluntly tell his guest that he would not take up repeated invitations to come to Islamabad until the Pakistani government did more to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks.  This is a real setback, since Singh’s dogged pursuit of good relations with Pakistan has seemingly come in face of resistance from his own Cabinet and speculation had earlier abounded about his own journeying to Pakistan – which would been the first such trip by an Indian leader in nine years.

But beyond maladroit words from Islamabad and aggrieved feelings in New Delhi, there are strong reasons to believe that the détente process has reached its apogee.  Start with the mismatch in expectations between New Delhi and Islamabad.  As Myra MacDonald notes, India, as the status quo power in the bilateral equation, “sees improved trade ties as a useful end in themselves; Pakistan, in contrast, is looking for rapid progress on territorial disputes.”  As anticipation builds for real movement on core security issues, New Delhi’s traditional stinginess on territorial concessions is likely to undermine the peace constituency in Islamabad while bolstering hardliners like Difa-e-Pakistan.  On this score, Mr. Singh’s Cabinet colleagues have reportedly blocked his more generous approach on Siachen.

Next, consider the sharper security competition bound to erupt between the countries as the United States and its NATO allies hasten their departure from Afghanistan.  Both India and Pakistan regard the country as a key theater of their strategic rivalry and the current defrosting in relations will likely become a casualty as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates into a new civil war that has regional powers scrambling for influence.  (For grim prognoses, see here, here, here, here, here, here and here).  This is all the more so given that Washington has now ended its long deference to Pakistani anxieties and is encouraging New Delhi to raise its profile in Afghanistan.  One indication of the value India places on the détente process is how it will respond to Kabul’s desire for expanded military cooperation with New Delhi.

A final factor has to do with the political turbulence that will unfold inside Pakistan in the coming months. The tumult will begin with what are sure to be chaotic parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for May 2013, and continue on with a trifecta of significant leadership transitions at year’s end:

  • President Zardari’s current, though renewable, term will expire in September.  His reappointment will turn greatly on the parliamentary poll’s outcome.  If his Pakistan People’s Party fares poorly in the spring – a real prospect – Islamabad will be consumed for the next four months by high-stakes politicking to select his successor.
  • The tenure of the current army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, will expire in November.  His original three-year term was extended in 2010 – an unprecedented act by a civilian government.  Given the fraught nature of civilian-military relations, the decision on whether to renew his tenure once again or appoint a new chief will require much political energy.
  • Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, the Supreme Court’s maverick chief justice, is slated for mandatory retirement in ­­­­­December.  In view of his personal vendetta against Zardari, the selection of a successor is bound to stir up commotion if Zardari continues on as president.

As one analyst observes, “It is hard to imagine that all three of these antagonists will go quietly into the night.”  The resulting upheaval will inevitably detract leadership attention away from bilateral affairs.

As graceless as it was, Malik’s visit may be as good as it gets in bilateral affairs for a while.

*Controversy seems to accompany Malik.  He was a close confidant of Benazir Bhutto and she trusted him with the security details of her tumultuous return to Pakistan in late 2007 that ended in her assassination.  Major details of her death are still shrouded in mystery, as are Rehman’s own actions at the event, including his decision to flee the scene.  He was later appointed as interior minister when Bhutto’s political party took charge in Islamabad but forced out from the position this past summer when the Pakistani Supreme Court concluded that he still held dual British citizenship.  He now serves as a special advisor to Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, serving as interior minister in all but name.

**Indeed, the unusually rapid justice meted out to Kasab may have been an effort by some in the Indian government to torpedo Malik’s trip altogether.  The speed by which his death sentence was carried out is in sharp contrast to similar cases, including three men sentenced to hang for their role in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi but who are still awaiting their fate.

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