Is Zardari more India-friendly than others in Pakistan?

Asif Ali Zardari's acknowledgement of the links between the terrorists and the Pakistani establishment is not exactly a state secret. Nor is this is the first time someone in authority has made such a confession.

President Zardari's predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, had also promised to rein in the jehadis if there was substantial progress, in Pakistan's view, on solving the Kashmir problem. This admission of his country's control over the militants has now been confirmed by Zardari's remark about Islamabad having used the fundamentalists -- "the heroes of yesterday" -- to serve its own short-term purposes.

What is noteworthy is that it is only when this dangerous ploy had backfired that there was a dawning of sense in Pakistan. Had the terrorists not been emboldened so much as to pose a threat to Pakistan itself, then the military-political establishment would have continued to nurture them with tender care.

Even today, it is only a civilian like Zardari who has referred to the clandestine links between the government agencies and the fundamentalists. Not the army. As a result, there has been speculation about why the Pakistani president chose to acknowledge the ties with the terrorists.

It has been suggested, for instance, that he is posing as a democrat because he expects either to be ousted or face a drastic curtailment of his powers. That he is not the junta's favorite was clear when army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani summarily rejected his proposal to send the chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to India following 26/11.

Evidently, Zardari's view that India does not pose a threat to Pakistan is not appreciated by the military, which has established itself as the arbiter of the country's destiny by portraying India as a menace. It is a view which the Americans have been trying to counter if only to persuade the Pakistan Army to move its troops from the borders with India to the northwest to fight the Taliban.

But if the US hasn't been as successful in this endeavour as it would have wished, the reason is the curious endorsement by Pakistani civil society of the army's jaundiced and motivated perception. So much so that for a time, the civilian elite even refused to believe that the Taliban posed a threat to the country.

As a report in the Time magazine last month noted, influential sections of Pakistanis continued to believe that the Taliban "are funded by Indian intelligence; that the Americans are assisting the Taliban in Afghanistan to justify and secure a Central Asian foothold against China; and the old chestnut that Israel's Mossad and the CIA were behind the 9/11 attacks in the US".

It is no secret that it took considerable persuasion by the Americans to make the Pakistan Army take on the Taliban in Swat and elsewhere in the northwest, for the military and ISI had always regarded the terrorists as strategic assets against India. The pre-9/11 propping up of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by Pakistan was to turn the region into an area of strategic retreat in the event of a war with India.

Even today, there is little to indicate that the army's beliefs and plans have undergone a major change. As Admiral Mike Mullen, the US Joint Chief of Staff, has said: "He (Kayani) is concerned about the focus - both the threat from India as well as the growing threat in terms of the insurgency, and he's addressing both".

Arguably, the moment Kayani can satisfy the Americans that he has been able to neutralize the Taliban, the junta will turn its full attention back to the border with India. The army's objectives for doing so are obvious. If India is no longer regarded as bent on dismembering Pakistan, the army will lose its raison d'etre for controlling the country either by ruling it directly or by holding the whip hand over the occasional civilian rulers.

It is in this context that Zardari's remarks can seem odd for, unlike others like Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, for instance, the president has not only been determinedly non-confrontational towards India but also appears to be far more aware of Frankenstein's monster which his country has created.

Given his background as the greedy Mr Ten Per Cent when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, Zardari never appeared earlier as a man with a clearer perception than others in his country about Pakistan's future. Yet, today, he is far more friendly towards India than other Pakistani leaders before him, including Benazir, evidently because he is more of a visionary than any one of them.

It is possible that since he is an "accidental" president who would not have risen to his present position if Benazir was not assassinated by the jehadis, he feels freer to express his views than the career politicians who have to be on the right side of the army. He may have also seen through the army's game of keeping alive the tension with India for its own purpose.

Instead, Zardari apparently realizes that an endless tussle with India will be more harmful to Pakistan than to India because of the sustenance which such a confrontation will provide to the jehadis. What is more, the latter are not choosy about targets. They can attack both India and China, as Beijing now realizes in the aftermath of the violence in Xinjiang.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at aganguli@mail.com)   


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