The vibes emanating from the recently concluded SAARC meeting of Speakers and Parliamentarians held in Delhi were encouraging. Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh set the tone by saying that no outside power could help South Asia resolve its problems. He asked SAARC nations to create conditions for a joint fight against terrorism. The delegate from Afghanistan sought Pakistan’s help to allow transit movement of trade from India to Afghanistan. But it was the Pakistan Speaker, Ms Fehmida Mirza, who was most blunt and unambiguous.
She said: “I would like to propose that that this forum graduates to the next level where eventually the idea of a South Asian Parliament becomes a reality. Through this idea I am envisioning a Parliament that commands the trust of 1.7 billion South Asians – the largest forum if its kind anywhere in the world… I am envisioning a forum that will, in fact. Infuse a new life into SAARC exactly in the same manner as the European Parliament remains the driving force behind the European Union.”
All this is very encouraging. But somewhat similar sentiments were expressed during the tenure of the Vajpayee government. Will anything come to pass? The overall context in South Asia is very different from those days. That gives some hope. But the crucial question remains, of course, how the Pakistan army reacts. At present it faces a crisis of confidence with America. The US has curtailed military aid to Pakistan. It has sought demonstrable action against terrorism by the Pakistan army before aid can be resumed. Pakistan remains defiant. The option of China filling the gap created by the US decision is yet in the realm of speculation.
America has also demanded that Ayman-al-Zawahiri, the new leader of Al Qaeda, allegedly holed up in Pakistan, be captured or killed by the Pakistan army. The operation against Osama bin Laden became controversial because it was undertaken by US operatives inside Pakistan. This time around Pakistan is being given the opportunity to act on its own. Will General Kayani seize it?
The Pakistan army has responded to the US demand by seeking American intelligence on the whereabouts of Zawahiri. At first sight this appears to be stonewalling. But if the Pakistan army were to take action it would have to go through the motions of responding in this fashion. The fiction that Pakistan is unaware of the whereabouts of Zawahiri has to be maintained. The US demand gives opportunity to General Kayani to establish his bona fides. Will he respond positively to deliver Zawahiri or will he continue to evade? This will be the litmus test to decide whether the fine sentiments expressed in the recent SAARC conference will have any substance or not.