Washington: Narratives in Washington can be changed to suit the objectives. It is a subtle art but you know it’s on display when officials start using a different language about a country almost overnight, as it were.
For about three months I have been hearing from US and Pakistani diplomats and some thinking people at the think tanks that the Pakistani establishment has turned a new leaf vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India. They sound earnest and believable. Some even imply that India is behind the curve in both understanding and responding.
Evidence of this supposed “glasnost” comes from citations of Pakistan’s army chief, Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kayani’s speeches about internal threats being bigger than external ones, the intention to grant India the most favoured nation status, the visa agreement and the mitigation of anti-India rhetoric in general by all major political parties.
Pakistan’s able US ambassador Sherry Rehman recently told US reporters at a breakfast meeting that her country was doing its own regional “pivot” – to India and Central Asia. “This is the new Pakistan. We are moving beyond all templates of strategic policies in the region. Pakistan has no (strategic) aims in Afghanistan.”
Here is some counter evidence: Pakistan’s anti-India rhetoric and agenda survives behind the veil of nice talk. The MFN status still hasn’t come and Hafiz Saeed roams free, spewing venom. India is asked to ignore Rehman Malik’s outrageous remarks in Delhi about Capt Saurabh Kalia’s mutilated body as a silly man saying silly things. Pakistani friends insist that Malik should not to be taken seriously because they don’t. He survives in the government for reasons other than his political acumen. Ok, done.
But what about Ambassador Rehman, a recognised and respected liberal, who marked “Kashmir Day” on 11 February by warning that Kashmir could become a “nuclear flashpoint” — a message that US officials who attended surely noted and conveyed up the food chain. This is just the kind of talk that makes them pay attention. To Pakistan.
Rehman then threw in a few gratuitous references to India’s heavy-handed execution of Afzal Guru, a man who confessed his role in the attack on the Indian Parliament on 13 Dec 2001 and whose case went all the way up to the Supreme Court. She sounded like any foreign office type and not a celebrated liberal as she recommitted herself to the “cause” of Kashmir and vowed to raise the issue internationally. She said Kashmir was one of the first words to resonate through UN corridors but the international media had forgotten about it.
I won’t be surprised if in time when the new secretary of state, John Kerry, gets into the policy weeds of South Asia, US officials start once again raising the possibility of resolving the Kashmir dispute. There are still those in Washington who argue that India should do “something” about Kashmir to “enable” the Pakistan army to be better.
This is a pie in the sky – and it‘s not even apple. But Pakistan foreign office will continue to press, use Afzal’s hanging as proof of India’s iron boot, embellish and selectively choose facts to plug into the narrative that Pakistan has changed and India hasn’t.
Was Ambassador Rehman trying to fend off her detractors back in Pakistan, some of whom are still trying to hound her with a blasphemy case? Or is she — like many members of the Pakistani elite – a liberal on social issues but a conservative on military and strategic issues? It is worth recalling that as the head of the Jinnah Institute in 2011, she oversaw the now-infamous report on the “End Game” in Afghanistan, which essentially reproduced the views and desires of the Pakistan army. It was an argument for strategic depth against India in Afghanistan by another name.
Which brings us back to the premise of a change of heart. If there were a confident consensus within Pakistan on course correction, scoring points on Kashmir would not be the default sport of diplomats after a dutiful recitation of the Quran. They would have “moved on” — to recall Pakistan foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar’s pertinent advice to India – to seriously reconsider agreements almost reached in the past instead of “internationalising” the issue.
Indian diplomats stopped mentioning Pakistan in public speeches years ago. Even during the most difficult period in US-Pakistan relations in 2011, there was no gloating or baiting from the other side of the LoC.
Needless to say, the “change” in Pakistan’s outlook must be proved by actions not words. So far language is being used as a vehicle for tactical maneuvers because Pakistan is under pressure from all sides. The drawdown of US troops in 2014 has Pakistan worried just as it has India, Afghanistan and even China and Russia. One might add Iran to the list on a good day. Pakistan wants US aid to continue – sections of the establishment have recognized that complete isolation of the country from the west is a recipe for further disaster. They waited the Americans out efficiently and when Washington was desperate to find an exit route, Pakistan released some Taliban to talk peace. “Americans have watches but we have time” – a quote attributed to a Taliban fighter – never rang more true.
I assume it will take a lot more than words to convince India of Pakistan’s change of heart. India has come more than half-way to improve relations and help the civilian government while absorbing gratuitous words from the young Hina Rabbani Khar and Rehman Malik. It will take evidence, not speeches, to believe that Gen Kayani has shed his “India-centric” views.
Of course, Pakistan could always take a few steps. The easiest would be to arrest Dawood Ibrahim, a man accused in the 1993 Mumbai serial bombings and financing of terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba. After all, he is a self-confessed, boastful criminal and lives openly in Pakistan. Maulana Masood Azhar, chief of Jaish-e-Mohammad, who can be found in his large home in Bhawalpur can also be picked up if the Pakistan’s ISI and army so desire.
As the Americans say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.