By Patricia Lee Sharpe
The New Hour’s Margaret Warner interviewed the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Monday. It was Raza Yusuf Gilani’s first trip to Washington since he acquired the position that the Bush administration had expected Benazir Bhutto to win on her return to Pakistan last winter. Warner wanted to know if Gilani and President George W. Bush had worked out how they’ll cooperate in dealing with militants in northern Pakistan. Above all, she wanted to know, what did the PM think about the U.S. launching attacks of any kind into Pakistan from Afghanistan. For example, if the location of an important al Qaeda figure suddenly becomes known, is it okay for the U.S. to take him out without seeking explicit permission? If not, will Pakistan give permission?
No—and never, Gilani replied. It’s our country. We must do it.
However, he conceded, there are complications. We have the will, he said, but not the capacity, so give us some Predators and then when you give us the coordinates of the bad guys, we will take them out.
Sounds nice. Sounds cooperative. But this week’s skirmishes in Kashmir between Indian and Pakistani forces should remind us that al Qaeda and a militant Taliban are, to the Pakistani leadership, an infestation of fleas compared to the never ending, mortal threat from India, as they see it.
Check out that interview between Gilani and Warner. It’s a masterpiece of evasion and very careful wording. Gilani appears to be very accommodating and concerned, but he has no role for the U.S. in Pakistan. He promises nothing. And his words about the reliability (from the U.S. point of view) of the Pakistani spy services are especially slick.
Gilani, like most Pakistanis of his class, is a master of appearances. It would be very hard for me to convince you of the elusiveness behind his rather bland facade, if it weren’t for that little clash in Kashmir and an important story appearing on the front page of the New York Times this morning. The U.S. is making downright public its long-standing belief that Pakistani agents are helping the very elements who are killing Americans and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan.
So imagine this: the U.S. sends those coordinates and urges immediate action. Might not a warning reach the target well before the Predator can do its damage? Or maybe the package lands a little off the mark. Imagine the hand-wringing. Oh dear, oh dear, he got away.
If Pakistan is not likely to use Predators aggressively against al Qaeda or border-crossing Taliban militants, why does Pakistan need them?
It needs them for the war it really wants to fight. Not the American “war” against terrorism. The war against India, which flares up from time to time, especially when it is politically useful. Right now Pakistan’s government is an unstable coalition and the transition from military to civilian rule is anything but complete. How convenient it would be to divert attention from the government's failure to bring down food and gas prices and focus anxieties on an immediate need to resist Indian aggression—you know, to deal with those arrogant resentful Indians who have been trying to destroy us ever since Pakistan was carved out of British India in 1947.
Coincidentally, perhaps, such an incident materialized a couple of days ago, just as Gilani was starting his Washington visit. Indian and Pakistani forces facing one another in Kashmir exchanged fire for 12-16 hours. There have been further skirmishes since then, along with accusations that one or the other side crossed the Line of Control.
Frankly, we don’t yet know who was responsible for what. Nervous soldiers can trigger such incidents. But a crisis in Kashmir could draw attention from those nasty issues the Americans want to discuss. A series of skirmishes might also help to convince the Americans that Pakistan’s tendency to concentrate its Army on the Indian border isn’t neurotic. India is so big. We are so small. So, Uncle Sam, keep the military aid coming.
But wait. Might India also have a motive for instigating a clash right now? Oh, yes! A sweet little encounter with Pakistan might divert attention from the fact that the Indian government has not been able to prevent a series of bombs from going off in many Indian cities. A few days ago 42 were killed in Ahmedabad. On July 25, a lot of small bombs planted in Bangalore killed only two people, but on May 13th the toll was 62 deaths in Jaipur. In 2007, there were bombs resulting in fatalities in Lucknow, Varanasi, Faizabad, Ludhiana, Ajmer and Hyderabad. An obscure Islamic group is said to have claimed responsibility for the Ahmedabad and Bangalore incidents. Maybe they can be tracked down. Yet, successfully conducting and resolving an old-fashioned border conflict with Pakistan, however limited, might make more political sense. Putting the belligerent, never satisfied Pakistanis in their place could make the Indian population feel protected rather than vulnerable, an important consideration for the party in power with a general election not far over the horizon.
Whether or not the latest skirmish in Kashmir was accidental or premeditated, however, I do know this: when dealing with Pakistan’s political class, enjoy the conversation, but take all assurances with a cup or two of salt.