Malik’s visit

A fortnightly column on the high politics of the Af-Pak region, the fulcrum of global power play in India's neighbourhood

Malik's visit

Pakistan's Interior Minister Rehman Malik comes to New Delhi this week when there is a significant dynamism on Islamabad's western frontiers. To be sure, Delhi's focus in the talks with Malik is on the bilateral agenda — especially justice for the plotters of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.

But it is in India's interest to widen the conversation with Malik to include the latest developments in Afghanistan where Islamabad has begun to make some big moves.

In fact, Malik is coming to India straight from a meeting between Asif Ali Zardari and Hamid Karzai, the presidents of Pakistan and Afghanistan respectively, organised by Turkey in Ankara.

The intensified Pak-Afghan dialogue is part of a larger diplomatic effort to develop a framework for regional reconciliation in 2013 as the United States prepares to end its combat role in Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

Pakistan has put itself back at the centre of the new regional diplomacy on Afghanistan. Whether Pakistan succeeds or not, what happens on its western borders will have a big impact on India's own security.

Since the 1970s, the developments in Afghanistan have set the stage for the radicalisation of Pakistan, facilitated the growth of violent religious extremism in the region, and undermined Indo-Pak relations.

If Pakistan's Afghanistan policy has arrived at another defining moment, India would want to get a firsthand account from Malik.

Endgame

In the last two months, the US and Pakistan have put aside the bitterness of the last two years and have decided to revive their bilateral cooperation. Many in Washington's political establishment believe Pakistan holds the key to the future stability of Afghanistan and might be willing to pay the price for Rawalpindi's support.

Many others are sceptical. A recent report from the Pentagon, for example, points to the fact that

Pakistan continues to offer safe havens to extremist groups trying to destabilise Afghanistan. So is Karzai, who suspects the hand of the ISI in the recent attack on his intelligence chief.

But the Pakistan army might have done just enough to raise hopes in Washington and Kabul that it could be helpful in promoting Afghan peace.

By promising to facilitate negotiations with the Taliban and suggesting the possibilities for a ceasefire and power-sharing agreement, Pakistan thinks it is back in the driver's seat in Afghanistan.

In order to assuage Kabul, Pakistan has declared it no longer seeks "strategic depth" in Afghanistan and is prepared for a good neighbourly relationship. It has even offered the draft of a strategic partnership agreement to Kabul.

At the same time, Rawalpindi is making a major move to pacify the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, that has been the principal source of threat to Pakistan's security in recent years. Western media reports say attempts are on to oust the current extremist leadership of the TTP and bring in more moderate elements that are amenable to deals with the Pakistan army.

Delhi's role

Rawalpindi has been wary of Delhi's ties with Kabul and many of Pakistan's friends in the West had declared that India is part of the problem in Afghanistan. For more than two years, Delhi has said it is ready to talk to Pakistan on its concerns about India's role in Afghanistan.

Islamabad, however, has been reluctant. Malik's visit offers Delhi a political opportunity to signal India's strong interest in the stability of Afghanistan and Pakistan and deepening economic integration with them.

If its two Western neighbours find a way to resolve their differences and move towards reconciliation, Delhi must tell Malik that India is prepared to lend all the support it can. Cynics in Delhi will say, Rawalpindi has no reason to talk to India on Afghanistan at a time when it is gaining the upper hand on its western borders.

In 1980, just weeks after Russia invaded Afghanistan, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sent external affairs minister P.V. Narasimha Rao to Islamabad suggesting a joint effort by India and Pakistan to cope with the new challenge to regional security.

General Zia-ul-Haq had no interest, none at all. Maybe General Ashfaq Kayani too is not interested.

But Delhi loses nothing by formally conveying to Pakistan's leadership as well as the international community India's positive approach to regional cooperation on Afghanistan.

The writer is distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'

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