“It is too early to say.”
Zhou Enlai’s response when asked for his assessment of the 1789 French Revolution
In the last week’s issue of the New Yorker Steve Coll reported that in 2007 India and Pakistan where, through diplomatic back-channels, engaged in talks “so advanced that we’d come to semi-colons” on a deal over Kashmir. Unfortunately, Musharraf lost his political credibility and had to resign from the Pakistani Presidency before the deal could be completed. The new civilian and military leaders are, by most accounts, inclined towards continuing the process. But in the wake of the Mumbai attacks, it is difficult to see how this process can be re-started.
Pakistani-Indian rapprochement could be a tremendous aid to the Pakistani leadership in their efforts to stabilize their deteriorating country. If the Mumbai attacks have made that impossible, then the Mumbai terror attacks may prove to be one of the most consequential terrorist attacks in history.
Pakistan in Free Fall
Yesterday’s attack on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team, while a tactical failure relative to its ambition of copying the Mumbai assault (the cricket players survived and were not taken hostage and overall casualties were limited), was another blow to Pakistan’s domestic and international prestige.
Other incidents highlighting Pakistan’s possible collapse were the all too successful attacks on highly symbolic targets such as the Islamabad Marriott (the watering hole of Pakistan’s elite) and the assassination of former PM Benazir Bhutto. The recent “deal” allowing Islamists to govern the Swat Valley is yet another example of the state’s loss of control.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s twin assets of nuclear weapons and a strategic location (American efforts in landlocked Afghanistan will become untenable without access to Pakistan’s ports) mean that the country cannot be ignored.
It would require multiple volumes to explain the complex interlocking problems facing Pakistan. But, Pakistan’s conflict with India, primarily over Kashmir, is central and exacerbates many of Pakistan’s other challenges. Having fought (and lost) several wars with India, Pakistan is locked into an arms race that it cannot win. Beyond India’s demographic and economic advantages, Pakistan has long borders and little strategic depth. Massive outlays for defense needs have choked off funds for much needed development, while the military – once respected for its relative probity – is becoming yet another Pakistani institution mired in corruption. Islamist organizations have filled the void left by the government’s failure to provide basic social services like education.
The conflict over Kashmir is not merely over resources and territory. It also touches on Pakistan’s identity as the homeland for Indian Muslims. In the face of the Indian threat and its own panoply of ethnic divides, the government relied on Islam as a national unifier. These policies, combined with ISI support, created a fertile ground for Islamist groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba to take root.
An agreement with India over Kashmir, the key point of Pakistani-Indian contention, would have allowed military reformers both to shrink the military overall and to re-orient it from its conventional war India mission of countering India to a lighter counter-insurgency force that can keep peace within Pakistan.
An agreement with India is no guarantee that Pakistan would stabilize – the Islamist groups are now effectively self-sustaining and the country has been so poorly governed that reforms may be too little too late. But it is difficult to see how Pakistan can make the necessary institutional changes without an improved relationship with India, and the agreement described in Coll’s article would at least have improved Pakistan’s odds.
World Historical Terror
There is an interesting argument that most terrorism proves to be politically ineffective. This excellent paper surveys major terrorist groups and finds that, with few exceptions, terrorist groups do not achieve their political ends. The most notable exception is Hezbollah’s campaign against the U.S. and other Western powers in Lebanon in the 1980s.
But there are also terror attacks that have world historical significance beyond the orchestrating organization’s ambitions. 9/11 would be an example. Sadat’s assassination is also an example of an attack that did not achieve specific political goals (the Egyptian government remained in power) but did remove the Arab politician who had the greatest potential to change the dismal course of Middle Eastern politics.
If the Mumbai attack has successfully derailed Indian-Pakistani negotiations for the foreseeable future, then the attack may join the annals of terror attacks with great historical reverberations. It is not inconceivable that future historians will see the failure of peace talks as Pakistan’s last chance to come to grips with its internal challenges and avoid collapse. If this collapse occurs, even laying aside the nuclear weapons, it is sure to be a geopolitical earthquake leaving a vacuum in a strategic location and sending waves of refugees into the unstable Middle East and beyond.
History is not set in stone. It is still possible for Pakistan and India to come to an agreement. Both countries’ leaders recognize the importance of defusing their conflict, although it remains unclear if the Pakistani leadership has grasped the precariousness of the Pakistani state. If these leaders can overcome the setbacks they can deny the Mumbai murderers the ultimate victory