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The canary and the deep State

By Shekhar Gupta
October 12, 2015 09:26 IST
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'A close look at the time-lines tells you that exactly as the back-channel negotiations were in their most crucial stage, "somebody" was planning the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai,' says Shekhar Gupta. questioning Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri's account of a peace deal with India.

Flames rise from the Taj Mahal hotel, early on November 27, 2008, after the terrorists attacked the iconic Mumbai hotel.

IMAGE: Flames rise from the Taj Mahal hotel, early on November 27, 2008, after the terrorists attacked the iconic Mumbai hotel.

What's with top diplomats and birds? Sort of halfway through former Pakistani foreign minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri's 851-page Neither A Hawk Nor A Dove: An Insider's Account of Pakistan's Foreign Policy (Viking/Penguin), Natwar Singh, his Indian counterpart in UPA-I, makes an appearance. And you are reminded of when Mr Singh, asked by a journalist whether he was a hawk or a dove, wondered if he was running a foreign ministry or bird sanctuary. That was funny.

The challenge with Mr Kasuri is that he takes that Me-the-Birdman business a little too seriously. The pretence that a foreign minister of Pakistan could determine the course of his ideological State's foreign policy, or choose to be a hawk or a dove or some middle-species in that policy-ornithology, is unconvincing.

If I may add, somewhat ungratefully and impolitely, given that Mr Kasuri is a friend, a well-meaning intellectual and as generous with time as hospitality -- I ate at the wonderful Kasuri dining table on my first visit to Pakistan as a reporter in 1985 -- it is also simplistic, and in parts hasty and irresponsible.

I say that because the India-Pakistan relationship, defined as it is by Kashmir, is impossible to settle in the five-year tenure of one government in India, even if it has a full majority (unlike UPA-I). And definitely not under one more military dictator in Pakistan whose voice and commitments will not only cease to count the day he loses power, through assassination, exile or imprisonment, as Pakistani dictators' history tells us, but will be rejected and reversed.

It's an aside but an important one that Pervez Musharraf affirmed this pattern almost fully, having been exiled and imprisoned (house arrest) and nearly assassinated by his own terrorists.

How seriously will you take a general who launched the Kargil operation behind the back of his peace-making prime minister, presuming India would beg for peace rather than fight back? Or a politician, in his later avatar, who would return from exile solely convinced by the number of 'likes' on his Facebook page that his country lovingly, longingly, desperately wanted him back?

If he hasn't yet faced trial for high treason, it is only because he is protected institutionally by the army and also personally by General Raheel Sharif, whose 1971 war hero brother, Major Shabbir Sharif (Nishan-e-Haider, Pakistan's Param Vir Chakra equivalent, posthumous), was his batchmate.

My central disagreement with Mr Kasuri is in the implied claim that he somehow determined policy, or if it mattered whether he was a hawk or a dove. Pakistani military dictators have always employed suave, usually Western-educated foreign ministers or senior diplomats to further their top-down agenda.

Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, then Pakistan's foreign minister with his then Indian counterpart, Pranab Mukherjee.

IMAGE: Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri, then Pakistan's foreign minister with his then Indian counterpart, Pranab Mukherjee.

The trend was set by General Ayub employing Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Some usual suspects, Abdul Sattar, Sartaj Aziz and even Mr Kasuri, featured often -- representing no change but continuity in policy defined and fine-tuned by the army and the larger intelligence and bureaucratic establishment around it.

So strong is this institutional hold that it defies not just elected prime ministers, whether a Bhutto or a Nawaz Sharif, but also chiefs if they start thinking differently. Mr Kasuri suggests that he was moving ahead on a Kashmir settlement with India without a change in borders on Pervez Musharraf's mandate, and that the army was fully on board.

He talks in detail about meetings where President Musharraf's army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, ISI chief Shuja Pasha and other key commanders were present.

But a close look at the time-lines tells you that exactly as the back-channel negotiations were in their most crucial stage, 'somebody' was planning the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai.

If you wish to believe that it was purely a rogue operation with the army and the ISI not being in control, count me out of it. When Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif were making peace, Pervez Musharraf was plotting Kargil.

As former RAW chief Anand Verma wrote in a brilliant obit on his counterpart Lieutenant General Hamid Gul in The Hindu ('When Hamid Gul offered India peace,' August 28, 2015), they were carrying out substantive, path-breaking back-channel talks mandated by Rajiv Gandhi and Zia-ul Haq in the late '80s.

Note that is when President Zia's mysterious assassination took place, Lieutentant General Gul went back on his word, the establishment escalated fighting in Afghanistan, revived terror in Indian Punjab -- the third phase of Punjab terror, after Blue Star (June 1984) and Black Thunder (May 1988), was the most pronouncedly Khalistani and ISI-supported. Fortunately it was the last.

It was also in 1989, the year after President Zia's still unexplained death, that the Kashmir trouble was revived. So if, in 2008, 26/11 was planned just when a 'breakthrough' was claimed by Pakistan's key negotiator, you can join the dots any which way. For me, following the Ian Fleming principle (thrice is enemy action), three points make a straight line.

In all the talk over Mr Kasuri's 'revelations,' some real nuggets in the book have been lost. A most fun, and significant, one is the belligerent Pervez Musharraf speech at the United Nations General Assembly in 2005, in the peak years of detente. Mr Kasuri admits he was taken as much by surprise as the Indian delegation was rattled. Was General Musharraf fleeing from this honeymoon?

Mr Kasuri says he wasn't, he was simply reading someone else's script. He says the speech was written by Munir Akram, a typically suave and angry Pakistani diplomat (he had once called India the sick man of Asia, and Salman Khurshid, then MoS external affairs, a rented Muslim; his younger brother, Zamir Akram, was a very popular diplomat in Delhi and my neighbour). Munir Akram was then Pakistan's permanent representative to the UN.

You will have to suspend disbelief, but Mr Kasuri says the script was entirely Mr Akram's and neither he, as foreign minister, nor General Musharraf or any of their aides had had time to vet it because of other preoccupations. General Musharraf, therefore, only figured where the speech was taking him as he read it on the podium.

Several lessons can be drawn from it. First of all, we laughed unfairly at our own S M Krishna for 'absent-mindedly' picking up and starting to read his Portuguese counterpart's speech. Second, that General Musharraf and his aides were lazy, casual, if not incompetent. Third, that even when there was a military strongman at the top, the levers of power, the hand that wrote the India-policy script, responded to some other power-that-be. If it wasn't so, Munir Akram would have been immediately fired and called to account. If he was, Mr Kasuri doesn't tell us.

Any truth-telling on India-Pakistan relations is valuable, even if it is a view from one side, or one individual's side. To that extent, Mr Kasuri has added to our knowledge and understanding, in what may indeed be better renamed the Autobiography of a Singing, Simplistic Canary. But for many of us, it will reaffirm some cynical old beliefs, rather than bring any reassurance of change.


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Shekhar Gupta