Friday, April 3, 2009

Saving Pakistan from itself?

The time may have come (I suspect, it has been on us for atleast a year now) for a paradigm shift in India's foreign policy with Pakistan. We cannot afford to oppose Pakistani government, because perversely enough, the same Government may be our only remaining hope.

In an analogy reminiscent of our times, it is instructive to compare Pakistan today with the problem facing global financial institutions. It has been famously said that if one borrows Rs 100 from a bank, then they have a problem. However, if one were to borrow Rs 1 million from the bank, it is the bank that needs to be concerned! To extend the parallel - a politically destabilized Pakistan is its problem, but a civil war torn and failing Pakistan is also its neighbors problem!

The Taliban victory in Swat valley, Lahore bombing on Sri Lankan cricket team and the attack on the police school, all of them in quick succession, should be taken as the most definitive indicator that Pakistan has crossed the Rubicon that separates political instability from full-fledged civil war, one which marries the deadly cocktail of Jihadist, radical Islam and terrorism. It may not be off the mark to claim that Pakistan is now clearly the decisive battlefront in the "new clash of civilization" - the war within Islam itself, the one between moderates and radicals. Terrorism and violence have emerged as the primary political instruments of radical Islam, and nowhere is this on more prominent display than Pakistan's lawless northern frontiers bordering Afghanistan and increasingly within the country at large.

The momentum generated by the recent events, its attraction and effect magnified by the acrimonious squabble among the present ruling establishment, threatens to unleash a tsunami that could catapult the Al Qaeda backed militants to power in the country, directly or indirectly. In the circumstances, to rephrase Churchill, the present civilian government in Pakistan is the best alternative except for all others!

India's Pakistan policy has to be tailored keeping in mind this reality. Any political grandstanding within India to score political brownie points by flagellating anti-Pakistan rhetoric is bad for India. Given the circumstances, it would leave the Pakistani government with no alternative but to respond in kind, so as to score over its militant opponents. In fact, our only hope, and this remains a small sliver, is for the relatively moderate democratic establishment within Pakistan to prevail. Policies to weaken and isolate the moderate elements will only further boost the resurgent militants.

The Obama administration appears to have realized this, as is evident in its newly unveiled Afghan policy (full text here). In a classic carrot and stick diplomacy, the Obama administration seeks to gently incentivize the Pakistan government towards clamping down strongly on militancy in return for American aid. It hopes that the Pakistan government will consider this as its best chance of survival and respond positively, to the benefit of everyone concerned.

India would do well therefore to jettison its traditional foreign policy baggage of blanket opposition to US assistance for Pakistan, and support the Obama administration's initiative. This will involve abandoning the zero-sum prism through which India sees US-Pakistan and Indo-US relationships. In the present context, for those at Foggy Bottom, far from being a counter to neutralize India, Pakistan is a growing liability whose adverse effects need to be effectively contained.

A NYT op-ed makes the case for strategic communications in the fight against radical Islam, and advocates the setting up a Radio Free Swat Valley to mobilize mass support for the Sufi dimension of moderate Islam and rally against the excesses of radical Islam.

Update 1
NYT has an excellent article, Can Pakistan be governed?.

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