Vol. 4 Num 213 Wed. December 31, 2003  

The motto of SAARC

How close is policy to a heartbeat? To paraphrase a well-known adage: policy is a dish best eaten cold. A policy decision is an exercise in collective will, a marriage of two circles: one of the government and the other of the bureaucracy. All governments are temporary, or should be; institutions are permanent. Institutions are required to be heartless, so there is no heartbeat factor operating there. They also prefer to be conservative and even negative, on the valid assumption that all change involves risk. Their job is to protect the nation, rather than merely the government, from such risk.

The heartbeat does make a difference at the political level. Take a recent example. Paul Martin has replaced Jean Chretien as Prime Minister of Canada. Both belong to the same party, the Liberals, and are committed to the same policies. But if Martin had been in charge nine months, it is highly possible that Canadian troops would have been alongside American ones in Iraq. Alternatively, if Gordon Brown had been Prime Minister of Britain instead of Tony Blair, Britain might have been America's guard-dog rather than a poodle. The inclinations of men do make a difference, even when they sit on the same platform. But once taken, a policy decision is meant to be sacrosanct. In the case of foreign policy, a successor government is required to honour a national commitment, although of course there can be no guarantees.

Is the latest attempt to bring normalcy between India and Pakistan vulnerable to President Pervez Musharraf's heartbeat? It may not be very polite to address such a question, but it has assumed a very real dimension after the last two assassination attempts. As is known, such attempts have been made before, but never on this scale, with such determination, and so close to home. Once may be a matter of chance; twice may be a coincidence; but the third time, as Ian Fleming wrote, is definitely enemy action. So who is the enemy, and what is he doing in Islamabad-Rawalpindi? Theories have rolled out as quickly as the airwaves can absorb them. One side of the Rawalpindi bridge where the bomb attack took place was manned by the army and the other by the police -- so which side was vulnerable?

The usual suspects are all on parade: disgruntled generals, as ever, are high on the list, and Al Qaeda is now alleged to be responsible for all that goes wrong. One irreverent website that is called South Asia Tribune but concentrates chiefly on Pakistan, reported after the 14 December attack that a "major reshuffle in the top Pakistan Army ranks, almost within hours after the 3rd (or the 8th) assassination attempt on General Pervez Musharraf, has brought the existing divisions with the Army to the forefront with Musharraf now becoming even more isolated at the top". It claims that the transfer of the last Chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen. Shahid Aziz Siddiqui to Lahore as corps commander is evidence of such isolation. It predicts that the next casualty will be Lt.-Gen. Ali Mohammad Jan Orakzai, corps commander in Peshawar and therefore on the frontlines of the US war against Taliban and Al Qaeda, because of the latter's outspoken hostility towards the United States, "because he had been insulted and mishandled by the immigration staff at New York's JFK airport". I know the feeling as do innumerable others, but I doubt that a mature man in a powerful position takes a view of vital importance because an immigration officer pinched his ego. There has to be a better reason. Journalists are accused of jumping to conclusions: actually, conclusions jump to journalists under deadline pressure.

So is there a better reason? Have significant numbers of the Pakistan establishment, whether in the Army or the police services, become converts to Al Qaeda? It may be reasonable to suggest that the ferment against George Bush's America that is so evident among Muslims extends to the hearts of those who might not express it because they have a job to protect. But that is not the same thing as becoming an activist who would instigate an assassination attempt against Pervez Musharraf because Osama bin Laden believes that he is one of the "Munafiqun", or hypocrites who accept the faith publicly but secretly work to destroy Islam. If there are elements of the Army involved then power is much better reason than ideology. It means that for a sufficient number of generals, President Musharraf has become vulnerable. I am not a great believer in conspiracy theories: they are difficult to initiate and almost impossible to fulfil. But the very nature of a dictatorial system created through a coup lends itself to such suspicions.

However, within ten days two attempts were made on President Musharraf's life, and only Providence has kept him alive. Did the bridge-saboteurs of 14 December enter from the civilian side, past the police patrol? (One is using the police-military checkpoints as a metaphor of course.)

To uncover the effect, look for the cause. The mobile-bombers of Christmas Day were on a suicide mission, which makes it even more unlikely that the military was involved. This was an act of terrorism by people who believe that Musharraf is an enemy on a much larger battlefield. Pakistan has made regular use of shadow armies irrespective of who has been in power. General Zia ul Haq became the darling of the western world when he took on the Soviets through insurgents who were given a secure base, arms and funds through the border towns across Afghanistan. The Taliban was sponsored not by table-thumping political mullah or general, but by Benazir Bhutto. Here was a classic case of cross-border intervention: the funds, weapons, strategies and intelligence came from the masters in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and the project succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. But every puppet is on a string only up to a point; there comes a moment when the puppet seeks liberation from the master, or the master finds the puppet has begun an independent dance. That moment of divergence came on 9/11.

President Musharraf had no real choice when he stood beside America. There was nowhere else to go. I recall an interview that President Musharraf gave to the Toronto Globe and Star during his visit to Canada. When asked the inevitable question about Osama, the President was reported as having remarked that Osama could be anywhere, even perhaps in Rawalpindi. This must have been said facetiously, or in a half-bitter jest. And yet there may be a serious truth there. The power of Osama bin Laden is either overestimated or underestimated, depending on how you view it. He is definitely not the chief executive of some multinational organisation that produces and exports terror. He cannot be, for the simple reason that he cannot even make a telephone call without risking discovery. He must be in deep isolation with only a few people through whom he can communicate. But he has real power to spread violence, because of his ability to capture the mind and passion of a suicide-missionary. This is what keeps him alive in a hundred cities across the world, Rawalpindi included.

Islamabad has been ambivalent towards Frankenstein: both Kabul and Delhi are convinced that Pakistan calibrates its support for militants who can keep both neighbours on edge. The blur is deliberate, but maybe the time has arrived to find out who is getting lost in this blur. One fact may throw some light: there have been more assassination attempts on Pervez Musharraf than Hamid Karzai. The idea is not to score points but to find a solution. It is obvious that enough terrorist groups nurtured in Pakistan are now convinced that they must destabilise the government (still to take final shape) in Islamabad in order to strengthen themselves, and that there is no simpler way to do this than to assassinate the President. Is President Musharraf now convinced that all terrorist organisations have now placed him on the enemy list, or merely Al Qaeda? If he believes that there is still room for compartmentalisation, then he is fooling himself. If the Americans are looking for Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, then Jaish and Lashkar are looking for Musharraf.

There is much at stake in the coming SAARC Summit. A long season of discontent seems to be giving way to reasons: 'seems' is as positive as we can rationally get in Indo-Pak relations. Good sense prevails upon South Asia when good sense guides India and Pakistan; they are the engines of the region. It is obvious that we live in troubled times, with some of the trouble created by President Musharraf's chief benefactor, President George Bush. The nations of SAARC can decide whether it is in their shared interest to play dangerous games with one another, or work together to challenge common enemies.

The motto of this SAARC Summit seems obvious to me: If we don't hang together, we will hang separately.

MJ Akbar is Chief Editor of the Asian Age.