Pakistan: On the brink Guest column

The attack on the procession led by Benazir Bhutto in Karachi is symptomatic of the larger malaise that is eating into Pakistan's innards: internal instability driven by virulent Islamic fundamentalism. The country is in serious trouble and its very survival as a nation state is in question. 
The government is gradually losing even the minimal control that it had over the North-West Frontier Province, particularly the Federally Administered Tribal Area and Waziristan. Baluchistan continues to be in a state of turmoil. Brutal acts of terrorism are a daily occurrence in urban areas and terrorist organisations are rapidly gaining strength all over the country. Commanders of the US and other coalition forces in Afghanistan are extremely dissatisfied with the Pakistan army's performance in the war against terrorism, and have accused the ISI of continuing to support the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The government's inept handling of domestic discord has led to political instability. General Pervez Musharraf has only a tenuous hold over power. No political party or coalition enjoys mass support. Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People's Party stand discredited. Major government decisions are being increasingly subjected to judicial scrutiny and review. Whatever political scenario unfolds after the parliamentary elections in January 2008, peace with India will not be high up on the agenda of the new government.

It will not be long before the repercussions of instability in Pakistan are felt in India. In fact, a beleaguered government will be tempted to ratchet up the proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir in order to distract people's attention from contentious domestic issues. A weak government will be in no position to expend its meagre political capital on the peace process. Clearly, only big-ticket agreements, such as the demilitarisation of the Siachen conflict zone and resolution of the maritime boundary dispute in the Sir Creek area, can provide the impetus that is necessary to carry the rapprochement process to the level where the Kashmir dispute can be seriously discussed.

Though the extent of infiltration and incidents of violence have reduced this summer, the ISI is keeping the machinery for waging a proxy war well oiled. Despite its domestic challenges, the Pakistan army has so far shown little inclination to change its long-term policy of annexing J&K, particularly the Kashmir Valley. As it cannot fight on three fronts simultaneously, peace overtures towards India are only a tactical ploy to tide over internal instability and terrorist threat. 

India has been cautiously optimistic in its dealings with Pakistan over the last three years. The government's strategy has been to give peace a chance while continuing to remain vigilant. However, the current turmoil in Pakistan has resulted in the Indian government adopting a wait-and-watch attitude. This has slowed down the fragile process that had been described by both sides as irreversible only two years ago. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is also facing political instability and the UPA government is not in a position to take hard decisions.

Perhaps a more politically secure Indian Prime Minister will travel to Pakistan to sign agreements on Siachen and Sir Creek, to once again give a fillip to the peace process and the normalisation of relations; only if the Pakistan army does not choose to escalate tensions.

Kanwal is additional director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.