By Jonathan Power
“Those whom the gods destroy they first make mad.”
There is a madness about the triangular relationship between India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They all have resented and often hated each other; made alliances against each other; worked together when it was opportune; supported or, at least, turned too much of a blind eye to terrorists in each other’s countries; and became profoundly angry if terrorism was unleashed against them.
These cleavages have their roots in the Great Game, the nineteenth century British-Russian struggle for supremacy in Afghanistan and central Asia.
But ever since the Red Army invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and was finally defeated by the Taliban (aided by American, Saudi Arabian, and Indian arms and training), the intensity of the regional rivalry has been ratcheted up and extended to frightening proportions, worsened by America’s decision to wage war in Central Asia. It is no longer just a Great Game. It has become a Great Madness. One hostile act impacts on another and then the two together create a third, then three together create a fourth…and so on.
It has long been known that the Pakistan-based terrorists who have struggled to liberate Kashmir from India’s grip have close connections with the Taliban. There is also little doubt that those Pakistani terrorists whose primary interest is a free Kashmir aim to wound India’s growing political and diplomatic interests in Afghanistan. India, in turn, has aimed to encircle Pakistan in order to have a counter against Islamabad’s Kashmir ambitions.
At the same time, it is fair to say that successive Pakistani governments over the last decade have attempted to rein in the terrorists who operate from domestic bases or in Kashmir. But given past channels of support from earlier governments and the intelligence services, it has proved difficult to break completely the old umbilical cord.
Pakistani tactics profoundly changed for the better under former President Pervez Musharraf, and they have arguably changed even more under the new government of Asif Ali Zardari who, let us not forget, lost his wife, Benazir Bhutto, in a brutal assassination carried out by these very same Pakistan-based terrorists. His November 22 statement renouncing Pakistan’s first-use nuclear weapon doctrine was a landmark step forward.
Now, with the Mumbai terrorist attacks, it seems that India and Pakistan are being pushed back to square one. This is largely India’s fault. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government has been to slow to respond to overtures of peace from Pakistan. The insouciant body language that shrugged off Zardari’s statement on nuclear policy was totally reprehensible given its significance. But even worse was Singh’s refusal to grab the Kashmiri peace deal offered by Musharraf in December 2006—at a time when he controlled both the government and military of Pakistan. Every Western diplomat I talked to in Islamabad and New Delhi last year thought that India would never get a better offer.
These same diplomats believe that Singh is India’s leading dove when it comes to dealing with Pakistan. But if this is true, it shows how much India is in hock to conservative elements in its intelligence services, foreign ministry, and the army—not to mention public opinion. As Prime Minister Singh told me in conversation last year, “How can you expect me to push a peace agreement on Kashmir when militants are coming from Pakistan every few months to set off bombs in India? No leader can be too far ahead of public opinion.”
When I repeated these words a few days later to Musharraf, he gave this compelling riposte: “If everyone in the world looked for calm and peace before reaching a solution, we would never achieve peace anywhere. It is the political deal itself that can produce calm. Bomb blasts are a result of the problem. Let’s not put the cart before the horse.”
With Musharraf gone, the best chance of a deal has gone too. Even though Zardari seems willing to attempt another overture, is unclear if Pakistan’s military can be led to the starting line as easily as it could have been by Musharraf. Besides, after Mumbai, the atmosphere is so badly poisoned in India that Singh presumably is even more convinced he can’t take any grand steps towards Pakistan.
But isn’t this what separates a statesman from a politician? Cometh the hour, cometh the man? Singh must risk all and reach out and grab Pakistan’s peace offers. Only then might the triangle of madness be broken.
Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).