Paarull Malhotra: Talking about talking

Last Updated: Wed, Feb 24, 2010 20:20 hrs

India and Pakistan are talking once again today at the official level. The preparation on the Indian side leaves no doubt that the focus will be on terrorism. The foreign ministry is consulting with the home ministry, defence ministry and security agencies. Pakistan will be placed in the dock.

We can reasonably expect foreign secretary Nirupama Rao to press for the complete unravelling of the 26/11 conspiracy, including an investigation into the roles of David Headley and Tahawar Rana, and their links with serving and/or retired Pakistani army officers. We can also expect India to demand voice samples of the handlers of Kasab and company. We can expect Pakistan to be questioned on why Hafiz Saeed and his fellow jihadis can publicly preach anti-India jihad not just in Muzaffarabad but also in Lahore and Rawalpindi.

We can expect Delhi to confront Islamabad about its unwillingness to enforce an anti-terrorism law that allows for organisations to be banned if there’s even a suspicion that they are a front for a terrorist group. More important, though, is the discussion India will try and have on Afghanistan.

The next few months will be critical to shaping Afghanistan’s future. That New Delhi is uneasy is obvious from Ms Rao’s recent remarks in London that "the issue of reintegration should be tackled with prudence, the benefit of hindsight, foresight and caution. We believe that any integration process in Afghanistan should be Afghan-led... ."

The unease is because Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will lead the way in engaging the Taliban to orchestrate their return to power in Kabul. India has noted the death last week of Afghan Talib leader Jalaluddin Haqqani’s son in a drone strike in North Waziristan. The sudden capture of Mullah Omar’s deputy Mullah Baradar this month has not escaped attention either.

One assessment is that the Pakistani army — especially intelligence agency ISI — which has used the Afghan Talib as strategic assets, is possibly sending them a message that they are not indispensable and, therefore, will need to fall in line. A message is possibly also being sent to Washington to treat the Pakistani army as its ally in exchange for giving it a role in negotiating an end to the Afghan war.

How does Pakistan see Afghanistan play out? Which Taliban are going to be approached for reconciliation and reintegration? And on what terms? Will Pakistan use its role in Afghanistan to press the US to mediate on Kashmir? On these assessments will depend how India copes with the return of the Taliban and the threat consequently to our national security — stemming from both the jihadi hotbed Afghanistan can turn into and Pakistan’s agenda on Kashmir.

India, therefore, sees some utility in talking to Pakistan directly — as opposed to settling for third party reports from Washington, Kabul and Riyadh. It is also worth noting that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani isn’t only thinking that he’s winning the great game, but that he may well be in a far stronger position at home than, say, a year ago. India’s South Block believes that the Army is back to exerting a decisive say in foreign affairs.

General Kayani has been offered a two-year extension by President Zardari’s government as has the DG, ISI. Foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s shrill and uncharacteristic rhetoric — within days of India going public with its offer for talks — is another indicator. Days ahead of the Delhi dialogue, Pakistan cited the Indo-US nuclear deal to reject multilateral discussions on freezing production of nuclear material.

The civilian government’s rhetoric over water and the addition of a "secular" issue like water to the jihadi agenda is another sign. The Jamaat-ud-Dawah’s Abdul Rehman Makki warned that jihadis were ready to fill the Ravi river with "blood" to avenge India’s alleged denial of river water to Pakistan — before helpfully dropping a hint that Pune would be attacked.

So, when Pakistan foreign secretary Salman Bashir talks to Nirupama Rao today, the brief will be General Kayani’s.

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