Zardari Must Prove He is President, Not an Army Puppet

India-Pakistan relations have reached not only their lowest point after the Mumbai massacres but also perhaps their most dangerous phase ever. Throughout the earlier periods, even during the 1965 and 1971 wars and the 1999 Kargil incursion, Pakistan had a credible government in place, even under Yahya Khan, the military dictator known for his fondness for the bottle.

At present, however, Pakistan is almost dysfunctional - an "international migraine", as former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright has said.

One dictator has reluctantly left, but the civilian government which replaced him does not seem to be fully in charge. As much is clear from President Asif Ali Zardari's backtracking from his earlier more cooperative attitude towards India.

It isn't only that he has had to go back on his promise to send the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief to India to help in the investigations into the terrorist attack, but he is now blandly denying any Pakistan connection. He has even said that the suspect caught in Mumbai may not be a Pakistani at all.

Given this deliberate attempt to absolve Pakistan of all guilt, it is hardly surprising that he has summarily rejected India's request for handing over 20 patrons of terrorism, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba chief, Hafez Sayeed, and Dawood Ibrahim, the head of a formerly Mumbai-based criminal gang that was responsible for the 1993 serial bombings in Mumbai.

The hardening of Zardari's stance makes it clear that the army has again begun dictating terms despite promising to withdraw to the barracks. Pakistan's fledgling democracy, therefore, under a civilian president and prime minister, is under threat from its old adversary, the army.

It is a turn of events which cannot please India. The wars of 1965 and 1971 were fought when the army ruled the roost. General Musharraf also initiated the Kargil intrusion behind then prime minister Nawaz Sharif's back.

Zardari's accession had raised hopes not only because, as he said, democracies do not go to war, but also because it seemed that he intended to implement Benazir Bhutto's intention of improving ties with India. After losing power, Benazir apparently realized that she had made a mistake with her earlier shrill, azadi, azadi, azadi (freedom), cry for Kashmir.

Zardari's observation a few weeks ago that there was a bit of India in every Pakistani and vice versa had not only underlined the essential unity of the subcontinent but also that he was serious about better relations. This belief was confirmed by his observation that India did not pose a threat to Pakistan.

Was the terrorist outrage in Mumbai intended to derail him and the prospects of an improved relationship? As is obvious, for a Pakistan president to disregard an Indian threat erodes the very basis of the army's rationale for its overlordship of the polity - to save Pakistan from India.

The entire procedure of propping up the Taliban in Afghanistan and securing the Al Qaeda's bases there was intended to provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the event of a war with India. It is no secret that the army has never taken kindly to the collapse of this carefully nurtured enterprise after 9/11.

The army also cannot be pleased with the mission entrusted to it by America to fight its old friends, the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, in the badlands of Pakistan's northwest, which has been described by President George Bush as "wilder than the wild west".

Improved relationship with India will mean that the army will have to continue to fight the "war against terror" and see its old enemy, India, go from strength to strength to become a regional superpower. The old dream of bleeding India to death with a thousand cuts will have to be buried.

The Mumbai carnage means that, first, the chances of cordial ties between the two neighbors will again become a distant dream. Second, a tense relationship will make the army happily move from the northwest to Pakistan's eastern border with India, leaving the terrorists in the tribal areas free to recoup and regain their strength even if America continues to occasionally bomb the region.

Third, a reprieve for the terrorists will mean that they will again be ready to start bleeding India again, a task which they had outsourced for a while to the homegrown Indian Mujahideen.

The kind of sophisticated equipment which the attackers carried to Mumbai and the evident military nature of their training suggested a more direct involvement of the army rather than of the rogue elements in ISI and the military.

What is more, if the patrons of the jehadis did not try too hard to hide their identity, the reason was to provoke India so that it would think of a military response, thereby serving the Pakistan Army's objective of resuming its original purpose of "defending" the country rather than fighting the fanatics.

Now, the latter have pledged to join the army in fighting India if war breaks out. The old army-ISI-Taliban-Al Qaeda bonhomie will then be fully in place.

Since India does not want the subcontinent to become a nuclear flashpoint again, as in 2001 after the terrorist attack on Parliament House in Delhi, its only hope is that the US will exert more than its customary pressure on Islamabad to persuade it to give up its dangerous game of secretly harboring the jehadi serpents in its bosom.

If anyone should know the perils of this exercise, which is favored by the army and ISI, it is Zardari because his wife fell a victim to such machinations. He has to prove, therefore, that he is the president and not a puppet in the hands of the army.

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


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