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Shooting in the dark

Indian and Pakistani armies have slammed each other for violating the Line of Control this week.

Pakistan said Indian troops killed one of its soldiers in the Haji Pir sector after intruding into its territory on Sunday. India claimed two of its soldiers died in a firefight, one of them brutally beheaded, when Pakistani soldiers briefly crossed over the LoC in the Mendhar sector.The Indian army called it a “significant escalation” among the otherwise routine violations of the decade-old ceasefire agreement.

The Indian army’s statement described a “thick fog and mist in the forested area” the Pakistanis used to ambush the Indians. A thicker fog and mist, though not necessarily of their making, shrouds the evolving ties between India and Pakistan.

Clues to the unfortunate deaths of the three soldiers — one Pakistani, and two Indians — to my mind lie in Kabul and Washington D.C., not so much in New Delhi and Islamabad.

President Karzai was preparing to fly to Washington when the alleged Indian transgression occurred. He was airborne for the visit when the Pakistanis are said to have crossed the LoC.

Two or three unfolding events linked with Afghanistan and the US could be at play here. The first is the genuine Indian fear, fuelled by Pakistan-based Kashmiri militants who predict a surge of violence in the Indian part of the disputed region when jihadi fighters from the closed Afghan conflict are assigned a new mission.

On Tuesday, when the Pakistanis are supposed to have violated the ceasefire, the Indian Express reported Syed Salahuddin, the Islamabad-backed Kashmiri militant, as recasting the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Salahuddin critiqued the moderate leaders of the Hurriyat Conference and appeared to support the more hawkish Syed Ali Shah Geelani.

Indians would want the world to notice the threat, just as Pakistan would not mind reminding its global interlocutors of the pending and perennially simmering conflict in Kashmir.

Arguably, all this could have happened at any time, but significantly it all came together this week. Why? Other than the fact that the Afghan and American presidents are set to flesh out the contours of their responsibilities after the looming US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan two years from now, Washington is currently also drawing up a new team to steer Obama’s second term in office.

Pakistan has had a head start in winning over the Americans albeit just about, though it may look like a sea change to the naked eye after the gruelling days of acrimony and mutual distrust. Islamabad’s envoy in Washington Sherry Rehman is being given credit for this.

At precisely this time, American lobbyists for India and Indian lobbyists for America have been busy with some of these issues in mind, their fulminations considerably influenced by the molting under way in the new Obama team with particular attention to how it would play out for India and Pakistan. Afghanistan of course is going to be a key area of concern for the new team, they both argued.

Ashley Tellis, who was strategic adviser to US ambassador Robert Blackwill during the 2002 May military stand-off between India and Pakistan, this week argued for clear and firm steps by New Delhi to consolidate its ties with Washington.

His indented “second-generation reforms” should be extensive, ranging from measures to cut subsidies, changing labour laws, and manufacturing policy along with other steps. “Only a resolute defence of free markets will permit the Indian government to take the concerted action necessary to further liberalise the economy while simultaneously strengthening state capacity,” Tellis stressed in his report Opportunities Unbound: Sustaining the Transformation in US-Indian Relations, released by Carnegie on Monday.

Tellis was clear that undertaking these actions would require a display of uncommon courage. He quoted former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran as calling for openly embracing economic reforms rather than resorting to “reform through stealth” or “reform through crisis”. (Some Indians would argue the government should in that case pull out the army from Kashmir to deal with the restive crowds in Delhi and elsewhere opposed to Tellis’ ticket to bilateral ties with the US.)

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s second term came in for criticism. “Even though the prime minister’s personal convictions on this matter remain sturdy, his party’s fecklessness, the opposition’s expedience, and the easy addiction to statist solutions still pervasive in Indian politics makes implementing deep reforms an uphill task,” Tellis said.

An Indian Express columnist, frustrated by a fear in some American quarters that the India alliance story had been oversold to Washington, railed at New Delhi’s faltering attention span with its natural ally.

“Washington is discussing whether India is ready for a serious relationship,” the Indian lobbyist-columnist cautioned, adding that many key decision-makers in the Obama administration who promoted bilateral relations with India in the last four years were about to depart.

“Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who enthusiastically led the Obama administration’s engagement with India, will step down soon. Her designated successor, Senator John Kerry, unfortunately, has been dubbed by some (Indian) analysts as being less than warm towards India and ‘soft on Pakistan’,” the Indian analyst wrote.

“Such pre-emptive labelling is not of much help in the conduct of India’s diplomacy. Yet, there is no denying the concerns in Delhi that America might offer too many concessions to the Pakistan Army and the Taliban as it prepares to end its combat role in Afghanistan by 2014,” according to the analysis in the Express.

It was dark and misty when the soldiers in Kashmir targeted each other. Unless halted soon, the darkness seems set to intensify across the South Asian region, and possibly beyond.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.jawednaqvi@gmail.com

Jawed Naqvi, "Shooting in the dark," Dawn. 2013-01-10.