February 7, 2001



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Major General Ashok K Mehta (retd)

The mantras for peace

Never before as last month, had so many retired Pakistani generals including the last chief of the army staff, General Jahangir Karamat, invaded Delhi on multiple Track II security dialogues.

These warriors came armed with mantras for peace -- the cost of conflict versus the benefits of peace. Also present were two Chinese strategic experts and the one and only Pakistani origin American, Ambassador Shireen Tahir-Kheli, widely tipped to take over the South Asia bureau in the Bush administration.

That Pakistani and Indian generals, along with the Chinese, sat at the same table was itself an achievement.

This column is about current and evolving Pakistani strategic thought culled from interaction with the generals, who represent the predominant voice of Pakistan.

The startling truth for this writer who, in 1996, met this very tribe in Pakistan, is how Kashmir has been catapulted into center-stage and has become both an obsession and a mania.

It can neither be wished away nor put on the backburner. The origin of jihad in Kashmir is being linked to the recapture of Mazar-e-Sharief by the Taleban in August 1998.

The dominant expression and plea by the visiting generals was for re-engagement: breaking out of what they called a "zero-dialogue situation" to meaningful engagement on Kashmir as the "time-window" was shrinking.

Some of the salient thoughts they have left behind are:

Wars have never resolved any problems; the yearning for peace is on both sides of the divide; the Kashmir masla is an Indian creation which has been exploited by Pakistan; it is turning from a political to a politico-religious problem -- from a freedom struggle to jihad; Pakistan would have no problem accepting India's dominant role in the region and that it does not have the economic capacity to compete with India in a crippling arms race; further it is not seeking parity with India; that China is indeed an issue in India and any settlement now on Kashmir and other issues will be lasting as it would be underwritten by the military.

These generals, it came out, realised India's reservations in engaging a military regime that was responsible for Kargil as well as for the takeover of the country. But the option painted was worse -- one of dealing with a fundamentalist (the word used is 'fundo') order rather than a good Muslim military authority.

It was suggested that both countries could jointly defuse religious bigotry. If true, this makes sense, as the call in Pakistan for jihad in Kashmir can have an unpredictable effect on the 140 million Muslims in India, not to mention the communal fillip this would provide the Hindu diehards.

India engaging Musharraf would help him in undercutting jihad, the argument went.

Pakistanis are acutely conscious of the fact that the jihadis are a bigger threat to Pakistan than to India. The Delhi dialogue has established one conclusion without doubt: that if it wants, the military regime can rein in the jihadis.

However, the dialogue has clarified one point: that the main reason for not muzzling the jihadis is the perception that they are the ones who have secured the 'hard-won advantages' in the freedom struggle. Their gains are seen as a leverage to re-engagement on Kashmir. This strategic rationale is at the very heart of the proxy war and jihad has given the freedom struggle, its missing political paradigm.

While the idea of jihad is appealing to Pakistanis, the generals have come to better understanding the overwhelming Indian compulsions in not engaging a neighbour that disguises terrorism as jihad and employs it as an instrument of foreign policy.

General Karamat in particular, saw India's difficulty in accepting unconditional talks when the jihadis were using symbolism in attacking the Red Fort and other targets in Kashmir.

A fellow general even advocated Pakistani condemnation of the attack on Red Fort. What this general also said was that the jihadis would require some incentives or assurance on Kashmir to suspend their cross-border military offensive. In other words, all roads from Pakistan lead to Kashmir.

The good thing about generalspeak is that it is shorn of diplomatese. In Pakistan's case, it generally conforms to the views of the military regime, though one of the generals was at pains to emphasise that his views on the India-Pakistan situation, a part of a bigger Asian security scene, were his own and not those of Islamabad.

The message received on the seminar circuit was: India should come down to earth from the moral high ground it has wrested after Lahore and Kargil.

The blame for Kashmir spinning out of control has also been laid at India's door. Lahore failed because the military was not taken on board this journey. Kargil happened because it is rooted in Kashmir. As there is no escape from re-engagement, the two sides should settle down to talks.

These should cover four broad areas: Nuclear risk reduction; Kashmir, but go beyond stated positions; military CBMs and brainstorming.

The first, being most critical, should be delinked from the composite dialogue and the exchange started forthwith. What the generals did not mention was that only last month an Indian team had gone to Islamabad to evolve a nuclear restraint regime but the exercise was bombed by Kashmir because it is: Kashmir or nothing.

The Kashmir dilemma is what it is because Pakistan has no fall-back position -- so said one of their generals.

Military CBMs is a good idea and should become part of the larger effort in military diplomacy. In Pakistan and China, the military plays a substantial role in both policy and decision-making.

Although this is not the case in India, the military has automatically swung into the policymaking loop after the nuclear tests and Kargil. Unlike diplomats, soldiers speak a common language and share a unique culture.

The movement of generals, even of the retired variety, across the Line of Control was a good beginning to breaking the mindset of mistrust and suspicions. When they say the Lahore-type process (which does not include the military) will not work, they are reminding India that in Pakistan, the army has become the ultimate arbiter of its destiny. However, unpalatable for the other, this is both the bottomline and ground reality of Pakistan.

When General Karamat noted that Pakistan is a drag on India's ambitions, he was hinting that by getting Kashmir out of the way India could flow and grow to its natural size.

The roadblock to re-engagement is ending crossborder jihad. The prescriptive order from one of the generals -- help Musharraf to help you -- when decoded, reads: Begin talks with Musharraf, he will then rein in the jihadis. This, in fact, is Musharraf helping Musharraf. The compromise: instead of sequential actioning, both sides should simultaneously make a declaration of intent.

General Ashok K Mehta

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