A Week to Watch for South Asia
by J. Sri Raman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective
With harrowing uncertainty rather than hope, South Asia waits for a week of far-off diplomatic events fraught with consequences for decades. It will watch with anxious interest signals emanating from New York and Washington, from this Tuesday to Friday in particular, on issues involving Islamabad and New Delhi.
Two major flashpoints of the region will figure in the week that will witness the 63rd United Nations General Assembly session, with a major White House event to mark the final phase of the George Bush administration.
The first and the more frightening flashpoint, as of now, is the one that threatens to set Pakistan's tribal frontier aflame. Kashmir, the cause of many India-Pakistan conflagrations and currently a cauldron of unrest, will also feature as a serious subject on the sidelines of the session. The week may also see the final and formal signing of the US-India nuclear deal with far-reaching repercussions for the region and beyond.
The week's highlight may be a New York meeting between two presidents on Tuesday. Everyone knows what Pakistan's just sworn-in Asif Ali Zardari is waiting to take up with President George Bush on the sidelines of the UN session. It's a fair guess that the grim prospect of a headline-hogging tribal terrain becoming a battleground for the US and Pakistan, avowed allies in the "war on global terror," will top the unstated agenda of the meeting.
The prospect looms larger after Pakistan's latest terrorist strike. The suicide bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in the heart of Islamabad - which shook the whole country within hours of Zardari's address to its Parliament and just a day before he left for New York - did not ease the tension between the allies. As the six-story hotel, part of an American chain, lay charred, the terrorists, officially identified with the al-Qaeda-affiliated Tehreek-e-Taliban, appeared to be more than challenging the new president, who had promised the Parliament effective action against them.
They were also taunting him about his indirect but unmistakable call to the US, in the same address, to keep away from "violations of (Pakistan's) sovereignty in the name of fighting terror." They were providing added ammunition to advocates of direct US action on Pakistani territory, without depending on an ally not trusted to go all out against tribal terrorists and the Taliban. The toll at the Marriott - including three US nationals, Czech ambassador Ivo Zdarek, a Danish diplomat, and other foreigners among the 53 declared dead so far - presented a powerful argument against those in Washington and the Pentagon counseling a more cautious course.
The US and Pakistan appeared to have come dangerously close to a collision course after September 17, when several missiles, fired by US unmanned drone aircraft hit at least one house in Angoor Adda in South Waziristan. The attack killed about 20 Pakistani civilians, including women and children. The news raised passions in the country on the subject to a new pitch.
The raid came within hours of Adm. Mike Mullen, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, having met Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani and Army chief Gen. Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani among others, in what appeared to be an effort to smooth ruffled feathers over earlier instances of such violations of Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
US troops had carried out a ground attack on the same area on September 3, causing similar civilian casualty. Missiles fired by US drones again killed at least 16 people on September 8 in a village in the same region.
The cause of the anti-terror alliance received no boost from the subsequent revelation that in late July, President Bush had signed a secret national security presidential directive, authorizing operations by special operations command forces without the permission of Pakistan's government and armed forces.
Further investigations ferreted out the fact that Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney took this decision because, in their view, they could not afford to be seen as doing nothing about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in the administration's final phase. The demand from Barack Obama for stronger action on the Pakistan-Afghanistan front would also appear to have prompted the decision, with Bush eventually making a public declaration of the new policy.
Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi gave a new dimension to the issue when he said, "... where we expect others to respect our sovereignty, ... we too have the responsibility to ensure that there are no actions from here that violate the sovereignty of another country." The statement can be read as reflective of Pakistan's attempt under Zardari's presidency not only to repair fences with Afghanistan, but also perhaps to forge a common front that can avert unpopular US military actions in the region.
Zardari had caused more than mere ripples by inviting Afghan President Hamid Karzai to his swearing-in and addressing a joint media conference with the state guest. The future of the new bond may depend on the outcome of Karzai's meetings with Bush over this week. The two leaders will meet in New York, of course, but Karzai will also visit the White House on September 26, presumably for a continuation of the consultations.
Kashmir will be the other major concern of Zardari over the coming period. On the eve of his departure for New York, he asserted, "Pakistan has always been committed to extending political, moral and diplomatic support to the people of Kashmir in their struggle for self-determination." While taking care not to talk of military support, he went an extra mile on the sensitive issue by raising the question of self determination.
Zardari, it may be recalled, had drawn much flak in Pakistan-administered Kashmir for suggesting in a post-election and prepresidential media interview that the issue could be kept on the back burner, while India and Pakistan could pursue trade and economic relations. He has been trying ever since to make amends. His latest statement is the logical corollary of that attempt.
Zardari can be expected to take up the issue with India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who left for the UN session on Monday, though New Delhi would prefer to give priority to the issue of the terrorist attack on the Indian mission in Kabul in July. Singh's government has stuck to the stand that Pakistan's Inter Service Intelligence was the author of the attack. The disturbed situation in Kashmir, which we have dealt with in these columns, however, may persuade New Delhi to look at parleys with Zardari on the subject more positively.
Zardari had made his latest statement on Kashmir in a conversation with Sardar Attique Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir or Azad (Free) Kashmir. Khan is also visiting New York at the time of the UN session to attend the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) Contact Group on Kashmir, held on the sidelines.
Singh may not meet Khan, but there is some possibility of at least his team's interaction with a militant leader from the India-administered State of Jammu and Kashmir, Mirwaiz Umer Farooq of the All-Party Hurriyet Conference, who is also scheduled to attend the OIC meeting. At the moment of writing, however, it remains to be seen whether Farooq, now under house arrest in Srinagar, will be allowed to do so for the sake of advancing a Kashmir solution.
The media and the middle class of mainland India will focus more on Singh's journey from New York to Washington, and his second meeting of the week with Bush. US Ambassador to India David C. Mulford has raised their expectations on the US-India nuclear deal by repeating that the two leaders may sign the bilateral agreement, initialed over a year ago. The peace movement's campaign against approval of the deal by the US Congress continues, but it may not succeed any more than attempts to stall it at the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Nuclear Suppliers Group.
No mystery shrouds the outcome of the deal's finalization, if it does materialize. New Delhi has repeatedly made clear that the pact will only reinforce its nuclear weapon program. Bush, for his part, "looks forward" to receiving Singh in order to "strengthen the (US-India) strategic partnership." The objectives of both the dealmakers do not augur well for the people of the region desperate for durable peace.