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Don't talk to Pakistan for the sake of talking

July 20, 2010 11:18 IST

Given the repeated failures of such engagements, New Delhi should quickly accept the futility of talking for talk's sake with Pakistan, says Nitin Gokhale, defence editor with NDTV

India's home secretary Gopal Krishna Pillai is that rare civil servant who is unafraid to interact with the media on a day to day basis.

He bats straight, articulates the government's position succinctly and unambiguously.

He's easily the most popular civil servant among journalists -- both beat reporters as well as senior editors -- for being accessible and informative.

It was, therefore, not surprising to see him make the candid revelation to a group of journalists that American terrorist David Coleman Headley's interrogation by Indian sleuths fully confirmed what India always suspected: the Mumbai attack was the handiwork of the Inter Services Intelligence from inception to execution.

In a way, the home secretary was only reiterating what has been widely known in the Indian security and intelligence establishment and to those who report on these matters ever since Headley started singing to the Americans in November 2009.

Essentially, Headley confirmed what Indian investigators had surmised after interrogating the lone surviving Mumbai attacker Ajmal Amir Kasab. According to Kasab and now Headley, the ISI and the Pakistani army were involved in training the Mumbai attackers along with LeT handlers. Both revealed that:

# Two of the five training camps of the Mumbai attackers were located at Mangla reservoir near the Tarbala dam

# Access to these two dams are controlled by Pakistani army and navy

# The attackers were trained by Pakistani marine commandos

# At least three Pakistani army/ISI officers – Maj Haroon Shah, Maj Iqbal, Major Sameer Ali -- were directly in touch with the attackers

All this information and sketches of the Pakistani officers based on Headley's description formed part of the latest dossier given to Pakistan by Home Minister P Chidambaram during his visit there. The Pakistani interior ministry therefore knew what Pillai was talking about.

So those woolly-headed analysts who are citing the Indian home secretary's remark as THE reason for the failure of the latest India-Pakistan talks are clearly chasing a red herring or are deliberately obfuscating facts.

The truth is: The Pakistani army-ISI conglomerate was uncomfortable with whatever little progress the India-Pakistan civil interlocutors were making.

Any success achieved by the political establishment in making peace with India would make the army less important, a state of affairs that the Pakistani military is not used to.

So, Pakistan Army Chief Gen Asfaq Kayani and the ISI boss Gen Shuja Ahmed Pasha systematically proceeded to sabotage the talks by citing Pillai's remark about the ISI's involvement in the Mumbai attack

They could not have let the likes of Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi get away with permitting India reinforcing Headley's confessions implicating the ISI.  Kayani also had to reiterate the army's superiority over the civil government as the parleys were heading towards a "constructive" phase.

According to insiders at the dialogue, the atmosphere changed between 3.30 and 4.30 pm on July 14.

By then, Foreign Minister SM Krishna and his Pakistani counterpart had sorted out all differences to hammer out a mutually-acceptable agreement.

It was at this crucial juncture, around 4 pm, that the all-powerful Pakistani army chief intervened.

Kayani called on President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in quick succession before Krishna could meet either of them.

In less than half an hour after that, Islamabad had changed track, insisting on a timeframe for resumption of peace talks, a commitment which Islamabad knew India could not make. The dialogue inevitably degenerated into a slanging match.

So why did Kayani sabotage the talks?

The obvious reason is of course to retain the army's influence in Pakistan's polity, but the bigger reason could be Kayani's plan to gain a firm foothold in Afghanistan as an increasingly nervous United States begins to look at winding down its involvement in Pakistan's western neighbour in a year's time. In this period, the Pakistani army is clearly looking at gaining an edge in once again installing a puppet regime in Kabul, thus gaining the much-vaunted "strategic depth".

Simultaneously, with Kashmir valley in turmoil, it suits the Pakistani army to keep the pot boiling by once again stepping up infiltration across the Line of Control.

All available indications suggest that at least 500-600 well-trained militants of various tanzims are currently housed in Muzaffarabad in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Latest intelligence inputs say at least 15-16 small groups of these militants are attempting to cross over through known and as well as little-used infiltration routes. They have been given lethal weapons and high-end GPS devices, besides well-informed, well-paid scouts to guide the groups into Kashmir.

The Indian army, aware of these plans, has put up a re-tweaked, three-tiered counter-infiltration grid all along the LoC but as recent encounters have shown, the lethality possessed by the infiltrating groups is causing many more casualties than before. This year since January, the Army has already lost five officers and 45 other ranks while killing over 130 militants. By comparison, in 2009 over 260 militants were killed throughout the year while 78 security men died in that period.

Apart from pushing in more militants, the ISI has been active in fomenting trouble across the valley's smaller towns and Srinagar by financing separatists to encourage protests against the Omar Abdullah government.

Under the circumstances, Kayani and his fellow corps commanders could not have tolerated any prospects of progress in peace dialogue with India.

That GK Pillai made that brutally honest remark about the ISI's involvement in the Mumbai attack on the eve of Krishna's visit to Islamabad, was a sheer stroke of luck for Kayani and company.

To that extent, one can question the timing of Pillai's remark but not his intent because irrespective of the Indian home secretary's assertion, the GHQ would have sabotaged the talks by finding some other flimsy excuse.

Given the repeated failures of such engagements, New Delhi should quickly accept the futility of talking for talk's sake with Pakistan.

This is not to suggest that India should not engage with Pakistan, but in doing so it would be pragmatic to temper the expectations and not hope for any dramatic breakthroughs as resident peaceniks and media commentators on either side do every time the two delegations meet.

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Can we move on from Pakistan, Mr Prime Minister?

Nitin Gokhale