Message from Almaty

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

WAS the Conference for Interaction and Confidence Measures in Asia (CICA) summit at Almaty a failure? That is how many in Pakistan feel.

If the expectation was that diplomacy on the sidelines of the summit would bring India and Pakistan rushing immediately to the negotiating table to discuss the future of Kashmir, CICA was a disappointment. But this organization which has been born after a long gestation period of a decade has achieved more than one could have hoped for in its very first high-level moot.

It was not the conference itself that was directly involved in the task of peacemaking. But it certainly provided the forum for some high-level international diplomacy. The post-summit statements by the leaders of India and Pakistan made it clear that the prospect of an imminent nuclear war in the subcontinent had receded — at least for the moment. The standoff has been somewhat defused. But with a million armed troops in an eyeball-to-eyeball position on the India-Pakistan border, the danger is not over.

The world does not want a nuclear war in South Asia. But that is what the two neighbours have been threatening to unleash on each other. Their own peace movements are not strong enough to make an impact on the policy-makers. Pakistan and India have retracted somewhat from their earlier position that they would use nuclear weapons if the need arose; the risk is always there that any outbreak of hostilities will spiral out of control and turn into a nuclear war. It is the element of uncertainty which has compounded the crisis, because the two sides have preferred not to define their red line — the strategic and political tolerance level — beyond which if either of them steps, there will be war.

It was this fear that galvanized the Russians and the Chinese into action. The Americans have already been involved in mediatory diplomacy. The force of international opinion and the behind-the-scenes pressure on the two rivals has obviously driven some sanity into them compelling them to pull back from the brink. The CICA summit proved to be timely for it provided the opportunity for the Russians and the Chinese to impress on the two leaders from South Asia the importance of not going to war.

But what is next on the cards? It seems likely that some headway will be made this time to break the cyclical pattern of the standoff between the two countries. Of course the push will come from all the big powers, with Washington playing the leading role. But in the background is CICA which has been rather downplayed as the India-Pakistan crisis stole the limelight at Almaty last week. In fact, New Delhi and Islamabad would do well to take note of the emergence of this new organization on the Asian scene.

The first significant aspect CICA is its membership. The sixteen members which comprise CICA are cumulatively home to nearly half the world’s population, that is 3.5 billion people. It accounts for 55 per cent of the world’s GNP and has 40 per cent of the world trade. But above all, six of its members (China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrghyzstan) are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and have been fighting “cross-border” terrorism on their soil.

The composition is interesting in another way. Two major trouble spots of the world find representation in CICA through the presence of their interlocutors. For instance, apart from India and Pakistan who are the key actors in the war drama being played out in South Asia, Palestine and Israel have also been brought in.

True, when the first foreign ministers’ conference was held in September, 1999, these two regions were relatively stable.The Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not figure at Almaty in a prominent way. But one hopes it will be addressed sooner than later. This means that CICA hopes to take seriously its role of a forum for dialogue envisaged for the conference by its founding members.

Since the concern about terrorism is shared by a number of the member states, they have a common interest in joining hands to tackle this problem. Although analysts have done a lot of semantic hairsplitting to point out that Pakistan’s concerns over Kashmir have been recognized, the fact is that the declaration adopted at Almaty describes as “criminal” any act of “terrorism” launched and financed from foreign territory. However, Pakistan can take comfort in the declaration’s reference to the right of self-determination of people under foreign occupation.

But considering that many of these states have been plagued by conflicts unleashed by extremists operating across borders, the thrust has been primarily against terrorism as defined by them and not us. It is in this context that the battlelines have been drawn and Pakistan is likely to find itself isolated.

The pressure at the moment is mainly on Pakistan, which has tacitly conceded that the militants are operating from its side of the Line of Control in Kashmir. It has also promised to take necessary action. The Jaish-i-Mohammad and the Lashkar-i-Taiba have not made matters any easier by making claims from this side of the border about their heroic exploits in Kashmir and even beyond. In the post 9/11 period, Pakistan’s intelligence agencies may not actually be facilitating the activities of these groups across the LoC as has been assured by the government. But has it really cracked down on them? Failure (or inability) to do so has provided India with the pretext to up the ante and bring the whole world scrambling to the region to counsel restraint. India which began the military build-up has not come under particular pressure to pull back.

We do have a point when we appeal to the world community to look into the basic cause of the violence. Hence our demand for a solution to the Kashmir dispute. This touches a sympathetic chord in international circles. But nothing more. Nobody wants to pay much heed to this demand in the din of the sabre-rattling that is going on in South Asia. The focus inevitably shifts to war prevention and denuclearization.

In this scenario, do we stand to gain by persisting with our present policy of putting pressure on India through the militants? The general attitude towards terrorism has changed after what happened in New York in September. The new disclosures about the disastrous failure of the American intelligence in pre-empting the Trade Centre attacks has also shifted the emphasis to the need for tackling terrorism with full force rather than looking for its underlying causes in a particular case.

The right questions continue to be asked about the root causes of terrorism but the answers focus more on policing rather than on remedial politico-economic measures. The first has acquired an immediacy if further violence is to be stopped. Henry Kissinger’s insightful analysis (Dawn June 6) should alert us to where the American interest lies.

It is time for some rethinking in Islamabad. General Musharraf’s over-dependence on religious groups for bolstering his position in domestic politics and in the context of his Kashmir policy will not pay him any dividends in the long run. The militant groups spawned by the ISI may no longer be subject to the law or discipline of the state. A U-turn is needed in these two areas.

The president feels threatened by the mainstream political parties at home and is playing into the hands of the religious groups in Pakistan as well as the fundamentalists and non-secular parties in India. It is a paradox that the religious fanatics on either side of the border are tacitly and unwittingly in league as they promote each other’s cause.

In the rumpus about infiltration and cross-border terrorism many failed to take note Prime Minister Vajpayee’s offer to discuss all issues with Pakistan, including Kashmir, after the “cross-border terrorism” has ceased. This reflects quite a shift from India’s traditional stand that Kashmir is an integral part of the Indian Union and cannot be discussed with Pakistan. Indian leaders have a penchant for making dramatic offers and then backtracking on them when the time comes for testing them. But should we not test them? We provide New Delhi the escape route by putting our own preconditions and reservations which often make one wonder whether Pakistan also wants the status quo to continue, however perilous it might be.