The Crisis in Pakistan

Here's a choice for would be foreign policy makers: is the solution to the current crisis in Pakistan (a) a comprehensive Pakistan-India accord, with full Iranian and Russian support, to strengthen Pakistan's civilian government and assert civilian control over Pakistan's rogue ISI intelligence agency, or (b) stepped-up US military intervention in Afghanistan, unilateral US strikes into Pakistan's lawless border areas in the northwest, and thuggish American threats aimed at Pakistan's fledging regime?

If you picked (a), good for you. If you picked (b), well, the campaigns of Barack Obama and John McCain might offer you a job.

Recent revelations in the New York Times about Pakistan's ISI and its ties to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, including reports that the ISI was indeed responsible for the deadly bombing at India's embassy in Afghanistan, have pushed the Afghan-Pakistan-India nexus to the very front of the news.

But greater US attacks and more US troops in Afghanistan aren't the answer.

The answer lies in talks between India and Pakistan. India's Manmohan Singh and Pakistan's Yousuf Raza Gilani, the two leaders, held the first meeting between leaders of the two countries in fifteen months this week, and Pakistan's foreign minister was optimistic, saying that the talks had helped "clear the air" between the two nuclear-armed rivals which have fought three wars, two over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir. "A lot of steam had been let out of the pressure cooker. The dish we're going to cook is going to be for the betterment of the region," he said.

Trudy Rubin, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer, described the comments of Pakistan's foreign minister on the importance of improving India-Pakistan ties:

Better relations with India "are a top priority," Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Qureshi told guests, emphatically, at a recent private dinner in Villanova, organized by the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia. Speaking the elegant English of a Cambridge University graduate, he insisted: "There is a large constituency on both sides that wants normalization. There may be hiccups, but we will forge ahead."

This policy--if Pakistan's new civilian government really pursues it--is of crucial importance to the United States and the wider world.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Makhdoom Shah Mahmood Quereshi said here on Thursday that Islamabad's response to a blast outside the Pakistan consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, was "measured" and it adopted the same attitude towards the blast outside the Indian Embassy in Kabul.

"We believe charges and counter-charges would not help. It is easy to indulge in blame game. What we need is solutions to resolve issues," he told journalists.

Of course, the problems between India and Pakistan aren't just hiccups. The United States, Afghanistan, and India have all accused Pakistan's ISI of supporting the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other anti-Indian terrorist groups in a campaign of violence against India. And Pakistan, not without some justification, has accused India and Afghanistan of supporting terrorists against Pakistan in that country's Baluchistan province and elsewhere:

Ruling Pakistan People's Party leader Rehman Malik, who functions as the interior minister and is a confidant of party chief Asif Ali Zardari, appealed to Pakistan's western allies, including the US, to stop India and Afghanistan's alleged activities.

"India wants to destabilise FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas). What India and (Afghan President Hamid) Karzai are doing must stop. They must stop this," he told reporters in Washington yesterday. ...

Though Pakistan has always blamed foreign hands for stirring trouble in Balochistan and the North West Frontier Province, this is the first time since the February 18 election that a senior government official has blamed India for fomenting unrest in the country.

Pakistan has seen the Islamists are critical to securing Islamabad's control of Afghanistan since the 1970s, and it sees controlling Afghanistan as a way of countering Indian influence in the region. India, for its part, has worked closely with Iran and Russia over the years against Pakistan and the Taliban, and India used its ties to the non-Islamist, non-Pashtun Northern Alliance in Afghanistan as a way of weakening Pakistani influence in Iran and central Asia. (For most of the years after the 1970s, the United States supported Pakistan, the Islamists, and even the Taliban.)

It ain't beanbag when two nuclear powers start accusing each other of close-to-war actions. Is this the kind of situation in which the United States wants to go into, guns blazing? I hope not. The remote chance that some nutball Islamists in Al Qaeda might do something nasty to the United States pales in significance against the real-world threats to the people of Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan posed by Islamic fundamentalists and other extremists, including Hindu fanatics.

In fact, the United States is singularly ill-equipped to go bungling into that part of the world like some drunken sheriff. Last time we did, post-1979, when we supported the Afghan warlords and Islamist crazies against the USSR, we helped create the very problem we're trying to solve now. Many of the extremists holed up in Quetta, the Northwest Frontier Province, and the tribal agencies are people America armed and trained a generation ago.

So let's let India and the new government of Pakistan handle their own problems. They'll need immense diplomatic support from the rest of the world, including the UN and the US, but also including Iran, Russia, China, and others. Pakistan is fragile. Its new government, having already lost one major coalition partner, is trying to bring ISI under civilian control at the same time they are trying to force General Pervez Musharraf out of office and reorganize the corrupt, pro-Islamist army command. For my part, I believe they'll do better without heavy-handed US threats, which only aid extremists and ultranationalists.

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