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'India, Pakistan can have a strategic partnership'

Stephen Cohen
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October 22, 2007

A change in the Pakistan Army's mindset is the key to normal ties between the two neighbours, South Asia expert Stephen Cohen tells Aditi Phadnis.

Can you tell us your prognosis for Pakistan in short, medium and long terms?

Pakistan politics has one outstanding characteristic. It is difficult to define what will happen over short, medium and long terms. Still, in the short term, there is a good possibility of the emergence of a troika that will have the effect of stabilising politics in Pakistan and allowing the military and political sectors to more or less operate in their separate spheres.

Over the medium term, the likelihood of new national elections means turmoil in Pakistan will continue into the next year, but this may not be a bad thing if the troika can develop a working arrangement. In the long term, subduing domestic extremism and a new look at the economy and repairs to the damaged political and bureaucratic infrastructure of Pakistan have to be tackled.

You mentioned a troika. Who are parts of this and what do you see them doing?

One is Benazir Bhutto [Images], who will probably be prime minister. She has been in exile for eight years and has had a lot of time to reflect. She will try to influence the military, reform the intelligence agencies and re-professionalise the army. This is a Benazir Bhutto very different from the first time she assumed office -- when she was untested, untried and naive. The second troika member is Lieutenant General Afshaq Kiyani, about whom not a lot is known beyond the fact that he appears to be a quiet, responsible officer who is not a career intelligence officer. He is not known to be ideological, and is the son of a junior commissioned officer, not from landed or elite families of Pakistan. He is the vice-chief of army staff and will take over when the office of Chief of Army Staff is vacated.

Then there is Pervez Musharraf [Images], who would like to be seen as a progressive leader. He is waiting to see if the Supreme Court will let him shed his uniform and ratify his election as president. The big unknown is whether there will be a power-sharing agreement between the three. What they do have in common is that all Pakistan's neighbours want the transition to succeed. This includes Afghanistan, India, and China. They all want to see a spell of stability in Pakistan.

What is the nature of the Pakistani Army today? Until we understand this, we cannot assess the chances of democracy succeeding in Pakistan.

It is comparable with the Indian Army in the sense that the officer corps is from the middle classes. But it differs from the Indian Army in the sense that it has intruded in the Pakistani economy and is now a major force - Dr Ayesha Siddiqua has written a book on this, but I don't agree with her that economic motives drove the army into politics. Its role in Pakistani society is growing rather like the People's Liberation Army in China or the Indonesian Army.

But major changes are taking place in India-Pakistan relations and I don't know how much the Pakistan Army has internalised these. The army has had a central role in Pakistan as the first line of defence against India. But if this role is diminished, what will the Pakistan Army do? The biggest threat that Pakistan faces today is not from India. It is internal. The army will have to redefine its purpose, its goal, and this in turn will have an impact on its role in politics. And if India-Pakistan relations continue to moderate -- and they have, in the last few years, and I won't even mention the K word here -- the Pakistan Army will no longer have India as the chief reason for its existence.

Has Musharraf been able to persuade the rest of the Army that its purpose has changed?

I am not sure. In a way, this is the key to the normalisation of India-Pakistan relations as well. Musharraf may have come a long distance on Kashmir, but I don't know about the rest of the army. Kargil was a special and weird kind of case.

You have not mentioned anywhere the role of Nawaz Sharif and his family in Pakistan's power politics.

If Benazir Bhutto becomes prime minister, the chances are she will allow him to return to normal politics. This is something the Pakistani people have to decide. But remember that Pakistan has had only one free election in 60 years. Nawaz Sharif and his brother can play a big role in Punjab.

You know both India and Pakistan well. If you could decide India's policy on Pakistan, what would it be?

India's policy would be to protect Indian interests in its relations with Pakistan, which means exploring ways in which Pakistan can accept status quo. India could deepen economic, cultural, political and strategic ties.

What kind of strategic ties can India develop with Pakistan?

A common perception on terrorism, peacekeeping, the stability of Afghanistan, to cite a few. For example, the Pakistan Navy is part of a Gulf task force and the Indian Navy also does valuable work in guarding the sea lanes of the Gulf. They could work together. India and Pakistan were one country once. Kashmir may be a sticking point but there can be cooperation in other areas. Global warming and WTO are two other examples.

Do you think the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement is ever going to go through?

Many years ago, Arthur Koestler, a well-known British/Hungarian writer in the United States, wrote a book called The Yogi and the Commissar. In the nuke deal, the nuclear ayatollahs of the United States and the Indian commissars have joined together to bring down a deal that, on balance, benefits both countries because of economic interests. I hope it can survive and that an agreement beneficial to both sides can be concluded. If it doesn't happen, then, despite the protestations of the Indian Left, there are going to be much closer economic, political, cultural, and even strategic ties between the US and India, for reasons that are apparent to anyone who is aware of changes in the globe in recent years.

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