Today, Pakistan is probably the most dangerous country in the world. Yet it is India—not Afghanistan or al Qaeda—that bears much of the responsibility for this; and that, arguably, is the country holding the key to the beginnings of a solution.
More’s the pity, then, that President Barack Obama backed down as soon as India protested the mandate he wanted for his sharpshooting diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, which as originally intended would have included India as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Holbrooke is now operating under the title of United States Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan—and is reduced to dealing with only two sides of the triangle of madness.
Of course, it is an over-simplification to finger India as the originator of the region’s woes. It ignores history, not least the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which left behind a raging civil war in Afghanistan, enabling the rise of the dogmatic Taliban, who in turn gave a home to Osama bin Laden.
In 1986, I visited Peshawar in north east Pakistan, close to the Khyber pass. The town even then was full of armed encampments in its outer suburbs—Pathan chiefs who had escaped with their people from the war in Afghanistan had built huge well defended compounds to house the refugees from their kin group. It was clear then that the hospitality that Pakistan felt it had to extend to the displaced Pathans was storing up trouble ahead. Two million such refugees bred violence and extremism.
The Americans and the Saudis were engaged at that time in bolstering these Pathans with money and weapons to fight the Red Army. All of it was funded through Pakistan’s notorious secret service, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate. Most of it came through Peshawar. But once the Soviets were defeated, the US, Saudi Arabia, Britain, France and Israel, who had worked together on this venture, just walked away. The US had known about Pakistan’s nuclear bomb development the past decade but kept mum—and suddenly imposed sanctions on Pakistan, complaining that Pakistan had been developing nuclear weapons in secret.
Pakistan was triply furious: at the sanctions, at Washington’s convenient hypocrisy and at the fact it was left to cope with the aftermath of the war, not least the radicalising and rise of the Taliban among the Pathans of Afghanistan, the Pathans in its refugee camps and the Pathans in its own border lands. With some ambivalence, however, it supported these Pathans, not least because it wanted friends on that border so it could concentrate on defending its border with India. So, year by year, Pakistan got drawn into the netherworld of the “triangle of madness,” convinced that India was at work trying to use Afghanistan as a way of encircling Pakistan.
It was all part of India’s obsession with retaining its grip on its majority Moslem province of Kashmir. The ISI matched the Indians by encouraging its Pathan extremists to aid the Muslim militants in Kashmir. All this was before the arrival in Afghanistan in 1996 of Osama bin Laden, with his anti-American mission. But once he was there and safely ensconced among the Taliban, the next acts in the drama had something of an inevitability about them: terrorist attacks on America, reprisal in the form of bombing that hurts civilians more than the militias, attempted US and Nato occupation of Afghanistan, ongoing war…
But the Western effort, not succeeding in its main goals of defeating the Taliban and finding bin Laden, has backfired, not just in Afghanistan but increasingly in Pakistan’s border areas. It has turned hundreds of thousands of people who in free elections didn’t vote for the fundamentalist parties into raving radicals. Moreover, in their minds the cause of a free Kashmir is now inextricably linked up with the cause of supporting the Taliban’s fight against the Americans and Nato. The Indians, it is widely believed, are working with them. Hence the tolerance for those militants who in November went down to Mumbai and unleashed 24 hours of terror. Even if the US and Nato pulled out tomorrow, India would still be a red rag for Pakistan.
India missed its great opportunity for peace with Pakistan and an end to the Kashmir dispute when it failed to move fast enough to grab the unclenched fist the now deposed military president, Pervez Musharraf, offered them. The Bush administration failed to use its post nuclear deal prestige with India to help drive the negotiations to closure. Holbrooke needs to get busy with the power centres of India, (army, foreign ministry, intelligence services, academics, press) while the pro peace prime minister, Manmohan Singh, is still in power.
With Kashmir solved it would go a long way to quieten the fundamentalist militancy in Pakistan that feeds into the war against the Americans and Nato and the support for Taliban extremism in Afghanistan.