The Mumbai attacks, Pakistani hawks versus Indian hawks, the old Indo-Pak bilateral venom at work? Media on both sides making good money?

Let us not isolate Pakistan

President Asif Ali Zardari has told an American talk-show host that if there is “concrete evidence” against any Pakistanis for the Mumbai attack, the suspects would not be handed over to India but tried in Pakistan. He insisted that the state of Pakistan was in no way responsible for the attack as it was the work of “stateless” or non-state actors. He said: “If indeed they are involved, we would not know. Again, they are people who operate outside the system”.

When Mr Zardari said that there was no tangible evidence so far that even non-state actors were involved, he hit upon the crux of the matter. On both sides of the border, the opinion is extreme. While India insists that the attackers had come from Pakistan and were trained by an organisation inside Pakistan, the opinion in Pakistan is that the attacks were of Indian origin. And there is much to point to in India in this regard.

But such black-and-white opinion on both sides will eventually hurt since it will block communication with the damper of mistrust and hostility. For example, it is just too early for the Indian media to project opinion that threatens “precise-targeting” inside Pakistan. In the same way, it is completely counter-productive for the Pakistani media to get retired military hawks, who once had a definite role in manufacturing and nurturing such non-state actors, to claim that the Mumbai attack was staged by the CIA. This kind of thinking has nothing to do with the actual event. In fact, it is the old Indo-Pak bilateral venom at work.

Indeed, this kind of environment isolates “state actors” who want to resolve the crisis rationally. The way our TV channels are resounding with unrealistic challenges, one wouldn’t be surprised if President Zardari’s statement to the talk-show is also taken amiss and interpreted by the media as an act of “cowardice” and a gesture of abject capitulation. The opinion in Pakistan is in favour of defying the Indian approach and not offering any cooperation which allows the Indians to prove that the attack had come from Pakistan. This will go against the “minimalist” defensive position taken by President Zardari.

Why should Pakistan show flexibility rather than counterforce bravado? Because Pakistan runs the risk of becoming isolated internationally to such an extent that “friends” who may want to come to its help may be deterred by their own isolation. This is what happened in 2001. General Pervez Musharraf is today a non-person but the fact is that our army did step back after Pakistan had reached its maximum point of isolation in its policy of supporting the Taliban government in Kabul. Many people say we should have defied the UN Security Council in 2001, but what the army’s strategic retreat then delivered was good for Pakistan. General Musharraf and Pakistan benefited from the breaking out of isolation that loomed after years of the pursuit of “strategic depth”. The country prospered, posting growth levels never seen before. The political mistakes were made later and had nothing to do with the flexibility of response that the army leadership showed after 2001. The 9/11 holocaust caused the change and the change was good for Pakistan; but after the 9/11 of Mumbai the nightmare of isolation is once again staring Pakistan in the face. Because it is India, the weight of sixty years of epochal war with it dares us to forget what isolation can do to a country.

We have known some of the dangers of being squeezed after we tested the nuclear device in 1998. The world began to talk about a “failed state” that would not be able to get loans to buy its fuel and food, and that even its airline would be grounded as the airports abroad would demand cash. After freezing our foreign exchange accounts we had turned Pakistani depositors away too. Therefore we have to be very careful how much defiance we show in the aftermath of the Mumbai attack. When we oppose even the slightest measure of flexibility in the face of international opinion it betrays our deep-seated fears; it doesn’t convince anyone of our bravery.

There is something heroic in becoming isolated. There is definitely honour in it as we see it. But the first principle of tragedy is actually “heroic isolation”. Are the poor people of Pakistani, already suffering from the defects of the weak state, ready for more suffering? The hardships of an economy in decline already present an agenda of suffering that many may not survive. But an internationally organised punishment to bring Pakistan to heel would be beyond Pakistan’s capacity to sustain. Those who think simply of war and become smug should know that Pakistan can be harmed without being subjected to war.

In this situation, therefore, we must support a flexible approach which protects Pakistan’s interests without challenging the international community into taking punitive measures. (Daily Times, 5 Dec 2008)