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After Mumbai: U.S. Can Help India and Pakistan Move Towards Cooperation

December 17, 2008

Raja Mohan

Raja Mohan

After the awful terror attacks against Mumbai last month, the conventional wisdom in the Subcontinent and beyond is that the weak governments in New Delhi and Islamabad may be unable to manage the gathering crisis in Indo-Pak relations and will inevitably drift towards a military conflict.

Yet, with the help of some purposeful diplomacy from Washington, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari have managed to postpone if not avoid the more terrible consequences of the terrorist aggression against Mumbai.

Manmohan Singh’s extraordinary political restraint in India and Zardari’s willingness to break some of Pakistan’s political taboos have staved off, for the moment at least, yet another crisis in the Subcontinent that could escalate towards a military confrontation, including the use of nuclear weapons.

This delicate pause after the Mumbai attacks, however, is unlikely to last for long. Sooner than later Zardari will find the limits on his own political room to crack down against anti-India terror groups.

Meanwhile, Manmohan Singh is fending off relentless pressures from the ultra-nationalist groups on the right for an immediate military action against Pakistan for failing to keep its promise to end support to cross-border terrorism.

The unexpectedly impressive performance of his party in the provincial elections in India’s heartland has given him a little more time to persist with a diplomatic approach towards Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks. This delicate pause after Mumbai, however, is likely to be a fleeting one.

That the governments of Zardari and Manmohan Singh are weak and politically vulnerable is not in doubt. In Pakistan, after nearly a decade of Army rule under Gen. Pervez Musharraf, a civilian coalition has barely taken the reins of power. The balance between the civilian leadership and the Army remains a shaky one in Islamabad.

For Manmohan Singh’s party, the Indian National Congress, the Mumbai attacks could not have come at a worse time. It is in the final months of its five-year tenure at the head of India’s federal government.

India’s general elections are due by April 2009, at the latest, and a new Parliament and government must be in place by the end of May 2009.

Put simply, the Manmohan Singh government is already lame duck, and can’t afford to face the electorate with the tag of national security incompetence.

In Pakistan, the civilian government faces many woes of its own. Its economy is on a downward spiral, terror attacks are on an upward curve, and pressure is mounting from the U.S. and NATO to intensify an unpopular war against the militants on its western borderlands with Afghanistan.

For all their manifest vulnerabilities, Premier Singh and President Zardari have responded with considerable restraint, responsibility, and wisdom. It would have been a lot easier for Premier Singh and President Zardari to wrap themselves with the national flag and lash out at the other side.

Instead they kept open the channels of communication between the two governments and prevented the extremist elements in both sides from pushing them into an early and unwanted military escalation.

India has shown considerable sensitivity to the fact that it is a civilian government that is in charge of Pakistan today. But it cannot afford to stand by idly forever when its political elite and chattering classes are demanding muscular action against Pakistan.

While Zardari has made bold in acting against anti-India terror groups like the Jamaat ud Dawa and the Jaish e Mohammed, he will soon have to face the inevitable backlash from the Pakistani security establishment that has nurtured these groups as a long lance against India.

The real test for the two leaders will come sooner than later. Prime Minister Singh has no reason to doubt the good intentions of Pakistan’s civilian leadership led by Zardari. But he will need a lot more, the very dismantlement of terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan, than the easily reversible actions that Zardari has announced so far.

Meanwhile, Zardari can’t afford to be seen as caving in to Indian demands. That the United States and the United Nations have stepped in has made it easier for Zardari to act against groups that have been suspected of perpetrating the Mumbai attacks and other terrorist violence against India. If these demands had only emanated only from New Delhi, it would have been virtually impossible for Zardari to comply.

In an article published in the ‘New York Times’ (December 9, 2008), Zardari pointed out that the attacks were as much against the fledgling democracy in Pakistan as they were against India. In New Delhi, Manmohan Singh insists that India has no quarrel with the civilian leaders in Islamabad; but he is not sure if Zardari can prevail over the military and intelligence agencies in Pakistan to eliminate the sources of international terrorism in Pakistan.

India can indeed assist Zardari if he can help himself and the democratization of Pakistan by gaining full control of his country’s national security policy that has long been controlled by the Pakistan Army and redefine it in the long-term interests of his people.

If Zardari is prepared the walk down that difficult road, India should make it easier for him by offering a grand political reconciliation and comprehensive normalization of bilateral relations. But, clearly, India does not have the power to transform Pakistan’s internal politics. It is up to the Pakistanis themselves.

In the last few days, both Singh and Zardari have done enough to assure each other that they have shared interests in fighting terrorism and changing civil military relations in Pakistan. The Bush Administration, too, has helped by contributing to this process.

All three, however, would need to do a lot more in the coming days to build on a process that they have begun. The diplomatic challenge for the U.S. now lies in constructing a win-win solution for both Manmohan Singh and Zardari. Otherwise a military confrontation between India and Pakistan might yet be inevitable.

C. Raja Mohan is Professor of South Asian Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and a Contributing Editor of ‘The Indian Express’, New Delhi. He recently made South Asia policy recommendations for the incoming administration through The Asia Foundation’s 2008 America’s Role in Asia project.

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