(By Mani Shankar Aiyar/NDTV): Whether the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan meet on 30 January, as rumoured, or on some other date is not important. What is important is what they talk about when they get together. On the agenda is no more than the clerical task of determining dates for dialogue on different components of the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue. What is important is what else they will consider.
The key issue is ring-fencing the Dialogue from terrorist attacks. The existential fact is that there are powerful terrorist groups in Pakistan and the government is unable to rein them in. These terrorist groups will not go away because of grand symbolic gestures like the Indian Prime Minister suddenly dropping out of the sky to greet his counterpart on the latter’s birthday. Anti-Indian terrorist groups were there when Modi was refusing to talk to the Pakistanis. The terrorist groups were there when Modi gave his blessings to Nawaz Sharif’s grand-daughter. The terrorists went on high alert before Modi left Pakistani soil. And they have succeeded, as is their wont, in derailing the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue announced with such fanfare. To save face, the process is being persisted with, but nothing has changed as regards terrorist groups retaining their ability to act at will to sabotage the process.
For years now, the BJP has been sounding the bugle “Terror and Talks cannot go together”. Well, it seems they now have – and there is no escaping the dilemma that if terror stops talks, it is the terrorists who win; and if talks persist despite terror, the stern warnings of the past (and present) stand nakedly revealed as empty sloganeering.
So what the Foreign Secretaries should be doing is jointly addressing this dilemma – quietly, seriously, out of the public eye and with the aim of coming up with a formula that will enable talks to continue while terror is tackled. In other words, Talks about Talks.
This is not going to be at all easy. For the Pakistan government is not in control of its terrorists. There are, broadly speaking, three groups of Pakistani terrorists. First, those directed against the West and primarily operating out of Pakistan’s north-western tribal areas in Afghanistan. Despite over a decade of the US attempting to eliminate them through hi-tech drones and other weapons of electronic warfare in association with foot soldiers of the Pakistan army, these anti-West, Afghanistan-focused Pakistani terrorists remain a formidable force who neither Obama nor the two Sharifs – Nawaz and Raheel – have been able to effectively contain. There is also little doubt that the ISI is involved in cultivating future “strategic depth” in Afghanistan by collaborating with the Afghan Taliban and its Pakistani counterparts. They are also those who receive Pakistani assistance in mounting attacks on Indian consular posts in Afghanistan. So successful has been this collaboration between “bad terrorists” in Afghanistan and Pakistan that Obama has had to abandon his dearest wish of securing the withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan before his two terms as President and Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful military power draws to a close. If direct American intervention cannot enable Pakistan to effectively end anti-West, Afghanistan-directed terrorism, is it realistic to expect that US pressure on Pakistan will enable Nawaz Sharif, with or without the assistance of his army commander, Raheel Sharif, to do so anytime soon?
The second group of terrorists are those whose target is the Pakistan government itself. They have succeeded in killing nearly 60,000 innocent Pakistanis as Pakistan struggles to contain inner-directed terrorism. Their targets have included not only civilian bazaars and public buildings, but the ISI headquarters in Lahore, the Army GHQ in Rawalpindi, and Naval Headquarters on the periphery of Karachi. They are also the ones responsible for the brutal massacre of Pakistani school-children in Peshawar. The Nawaz government has hung some 300 terrorists waiting on Death Row, but the terror continues. If the Nawaz government cannot end terrorism directed against itself and its voters, what hope is there of their being able to bring to an end terrorism directed against its eastern neighbour, India?
Which brings us to the third group: the anti-Indian terrorist. These are primarily the Lashkar-e-Toiba of Hafiz Saeed and the Jaish-e-Mohammad of Masood Azhar. Both have long been banned by the Pakistan government. Both have re-emerged under different names. Both leaders have been under detention from time to time. Hafiz Saeed has even been brought to trial. But both are out and operating openly under cover of their religion-based charitable works. Indian audiences, in particular, have to understand that where the Pakistan government has largely failed in delivering development and welfare to its people at large, these terrorist-run charitable organizations have won huge support and plaudits from millions of poor Pakistanis for whom these organizations are substitutes for the government in securing minimum requirements of education, health and livelihood, and protection from bureaucratic and police oppression. To expect “prompt and decisive” action against them is to ask for what the Pakistan government cannot fully deliver. Yes, some symbolic action, of the kind we have seen in recent days, is possible. Even arrest and prosecution of perpetrators is possible. But securing convictions of terrorist leaders within a few days or weeks, and then maintaining these indefinitely, or expecting Pakistan to get rid of these religious leaders in “encounters” is to seek the impossible.
Our own experience of the Samjhauta terrorist blast in 2006 should teach us that detaining suspects is the easiest step, but no more than the first step. In the nine years that have passed since Samjhauta, progress in punishing the culprits has been, in time-terms, slower even than Pakistani action on the Mumbai 26/11 attack that came two years later. We have been fighting Naxal terrorism for decades and despite successive PMs declaring Naxalism to be Indian’s single most serious internal security threat, there is little to show that we have stamped out terrorism in central India. And it hardly needs repeating that in the North-East, terrorism has been persistent since Independence but, although some progress is made sporadically, terrorism-mukt Bharat remains a distant dream. Besides, one can draw up a long list of India-based terror attacks at Mecca Masjid, Malegaon and several other venues to show that finishing terror is no child’s play.
Therefore, the realistic expectation of the Foreign Secretaries would have to be that while terrorist attacks may and should be limited by a Pakistani crackdown on the terror activities of Pakistan’s leading charitable organizations, it is unrealistic to expect the total elimination of the threat altogether. It is also unrealistic to expect that Pakistan will step on its own corns by acting so decisively against shadowy characters in shadowy organizations as to eliminate the ISI or ensure that rogue elements are squashed forever.
What we need to determine for ourselves is whether realistically the Nawaz government and its vast number of supporters in Pakistan is or is not genuinely serious about negotiating a via media with India, and whether it is in India’s larger national interest to attempt to arrive at such a via media. It would appear that our government has at long last arrived at the conclusion that we must attempt at least to work things out with Pakistan. And it would appear that Nawaz, whatever his problems with terrorists, is not himself playing some deep double game of seducing Modi with sweet talk while conniving with the rogue elements to make terror the centre-piece of Pakistan’s foreign policy. If Modi and his cohort believe that Nawaz “would if he could”, then the sensible thing to do would be to see how he can be assisted by going ahead with dialogue instead of it being switched off every time a terrorist group acts without his knowledge or collaboration – provided always there is palpable action.
That might best be done by ring-fencing the dialogue while Nawaz struggles to contain the terrorists and restrain those in his or the armed forces’ establishment who are determined to disrupt the process. That is why it is not enough for Sushma Swaraj to accept that the India-Pakistan dialogue should be “uninterrupted”. The talks will be interrupted if they are not structured to be “uninterruptible”. What the Foreign Secretaries should be doing, whenever it is that they meet, is to kick-start talks about rendering the Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue uninterruptible – while Pakistan overtly pursues the terror groups who operate from its soil.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a Congress MP in the Rajya Sabha. This article was originally appeared on the India’s NDTV Website on Jan. 18, 2016)