SPEAKING FREELY India and Pakistan have to walk the talk
By Irshad Salim
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
The Americans are staying; the Indians are happy, and the Russians and the Chinese are okay with it. Pakistan feels it has been check-mated.
Two days before the prime ministers of India and Pakistan addressed the UN General Assembly session, the United States Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan briefed the foreign press on the "Current US Policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan".
Ambassador Jim Dobbin's 40-odd minute briefing included
questions and answers session on AfPak (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and India, which I tend to call InAfPak (India-Afghanistan-Pakistan). The thrust of his briefing: India and Pakistan must settle their differences for the sake of peace and stability in Afghanistan - where a permanent US presence is likely.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh warned on Saturday that Pakistan must stop being "the epicenter of terrorism" if it wants better ties, but his going ahead with his a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, on Sunday appears a small step forwards. There are bigger decisions that both countries will have to make for "InAfPak" to become a happy family.
Singh, who met with Sharif on Sunday on the sidelines of the United Nations summit, had said two days before that he was looking forward to a "new beginning" in ties based on the Lahore Accord signed in 1999. The accord contains a road map towards the resolution of our differences through peaceful negotiations.
This breakfast meet was nearly called off after a dozen Indian army personnel were killed by Kashmiri militants. But it seems - based on Ambassador Dobbins' briefing - that the United States as well as other international players have nudged the the two premiers together.
Dobbins responses and observations throw light on the present regional concerns and the eco-geo dynamics at play and beyond 2015 with the US in Pakistan's backyard.
Good relation among Pakistan, Afghanistan and India is not only the key to peace and stability in Afghanistan and in the region but will also set a precedent for a permanent US presence in Afghanistan beyond 2016. It is a done deal, said the InAfPak ambassador.
Dobbin told the foreign press, "We're convinced that a rapprochement between Pakistan and India ... will be good for the international community ... and in particular will be good for Afghanistan. The Pakistani-Indian competition is not the only reason that Afghanistan has seen conflict, but it's one of the reasons that have contributed to tensions [the talks] will help significantly stable Afghanistan as well as advance the economies and safety of the citizens of both Afghanistan and - both Pakistan and India".
The ambassador also said he and his team have been meeting all those who are concerned about the region, including India and Pakistan's leaders, at the UN meet.
Singh, who addressed the assembly on Friday, said he shared Sharif's hopes for better relations but warned that Pakistan must no longer be "the epicenter of terrorism in our region" in the wake of another deadly attack in Indian-held Kashmir.
"We're convinced that a rapprochement between Pakistan and India, however long that may take - and it will undoubtedly be a long and difficult process - will be good for both of those countries, will be good for the international community," Jeffrey Eggers, director for Afghanistan and Central Region, White House National Security Staff, told foreign journalists.
Meanwhile, Singh said that "for progress to be made, it is imperative that the territory of Pakistan and the areas under its control are not utilized for aiding or abetting terrorism".
In an attempt to push Kashmir out of the InAfPak equation, Singh said he supported resolving questions over Kashmir, but stood firm on his position that the Himalayan territory was "an integral part of India".
"There can never, ever, be a compromise with the unity and territorial integrity of India," he said. It appears as though Singh is well aware that the odds may be stacked in India's favor, which explains the reliance on jargons like "[Kashmir] integral part of India", "no compromise", and "territorial integrity of India".
Sharif, while addressing the UN General Assembly, appeared to be on the back foot. He said he was looking for a "substantive and purposeful dialogue" with Singh for "a new beginning" with India. "Our two countries have wasted massive resources in an arms race," Sharif said. "We could have used those resources for the economic well-being of our people."
It seems Sharif assumed that India equal partners while at the same time forgetting that Delhi's concerns regarding Afghanistan and Kashmir are primarily geo-strategic not economic. For Pakistan it the problems are existential.
How Kashmir is handled by the two arch-rivals, who do have the potential to become good neighbors, would be the equalizer in the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India chess game.
Dobbins alluded to the congruency of interests of China, Russia and the US to see India, Afghanistan and Pakistan weed out terrorism in their land and settle disputes while the big boys convert the region into a supernova of economic growth and opportunities - thus outweighing neighborly fears and bickering.
Sharif, it seems for tactical reasons, reiterated calls for greater international attention on Kashmir, a longstanding position of Pakistan. While Sharif is just returning to office, Singh - who turned 81 on Thursday - is seen to be on his way out. He has led the world's largest democracy since 2004 and is not expected to lead his Congress Party in next year's elections. Therefore it seems it is the Delhi establishment and not really the government which is more interested in moving ahead in the direction of talks with Islamabad.
In a valedictory visit to the White House on Friday to see President Barack Obama, Singh voiced weariness about his decade of dealing with Pakistan. "The expectations have to be toned down given the terror arm which is still active in our subcontinent," Singh told Obama of his meeting with Sharif.
The Obama administration believes that the Sharif government is in a position to deliver what the US and the international community hope to achieve from India and Pakistan with Afghanistan not Kashmir at the center stage.
"What distinguishes the current Pakistani Government from the previous one is this one has a much stronger mandate. It has a majority, an absolute majority in the parliament. It had a strong electoral result. It is therefore potentially a government that's more capable of delivering on its promises, a government that's more capable of addressing Pakistan's pressing economic and security needs, and therefore is potentially a more powerful partner", Ambassador Dobbin told the foreign press at the United Nations.
But this author feels Pakistan may find itself check-mated. If it wants its backyard to be a friendly with continued US presence there, it may have to soften its stance on Kashmir and settle for an out-of-the-box solution acceptable to all stakeholders in InAfPak.
Dobbins mentioned that the US has assured Russia of its presence in Afghanistan. "I hope they're reassured by what we've told them, which is we're not withdrawing. We're reducing our presence, but we will have a substantial military advise-and-assist role, assuming the Afghans want us to stay, which I believe they do".
Dobbins also discussed China's view on US presence in Afghanistan and the latter's role in the region. He said, "China is ... looking at the integration of the economies of the countries surrounding Afghanistan and a way to make Afghanistan a peaceful commercial bridge ... China has no difficulties or complaints about our ... continued commitment of military advice and assistance to the Afghans."
In short, the Americans are staying, the Indians are happy, and the Russians and the Chinese are okay with it. But Pakistan may be feeling it has been check-mated.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Irshad Salim is editor of DesPardes.com and Pkonweb.com