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Restraint in bid to shield Pak talks

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By SUJAN DUTTA AND ARCHIS MOHAN
  • Published 16.07.11
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New Delhi, July 15: Mumbai’s triple blast has come in a season of détente and New Delhi is trying to keep sensitive talks with the US and Pakistan from feeling its aftershocks.

With US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who comes on Monday evening for three days, New Delhi has an agenda for a full-spectrum dialogue that covers almost every subject with only the agenda for defence-related issues a little diluted.

With Pakistan junior foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar on July 26-27, the challenge since Wednesday has been to keep the dialogue going in itself, seven months after being brought back to the table despite the shadow of 26/11.

Government sources said today that any request to the US for co-operation in investigation into the July 13 blasts “will be part of the ongoing co-operation on counter-terrorism that began a decade back and intensified after 26/11”.

In trying to keep up the effort for détente, India has decided it will keep the investigation into the blasts at the level of a criminal probe for now, a marked shift from the time when the first response to terror attacks was to find a usual suspect in Pakistan.

The restraint is underpinned by a belief that when India and Pakistan talk, there will be elements that will act to push the clock back to a more tension-filled time.

More than 48 hours after the blasts, there is no outspoken statement from any public official in the external affairs, home or defence ministries blaming Pakistan.

From Pakistan, too, there are reports that there is relief at the lack of finger-pointing.

When a correspondent of The Telegraph visited Islamabad and Lahore last month, he recorded multiple voices on the street that were more strident in their opposition to US presence than in animosity towards India.

New Delhi’s reasons to sustain the season are strong.

First, the tragedy of the Wednesday blasts has heaped misery on Mumbai for the fifth time but the scale and the sophistication are not matched by the special operation that created the mayhem on 26/11.

There is also no immediate lead or clue or suspect (very different from catching Ajmal Kasab) that leads to Islamabad.

Second, in 2008 the US presence in Afghanistan through Pakistan was indeterminate and New Delhi was trying to get the US to police Pakistan for it more effectively.

This time, the US has announced a schedule for a pullout of troops from Afghanistan and an effective draw-down in Pakistan.

From 2002, India has re-invested in Afghanistan and wants so much now to reap the goodwill it believes it has earned that it has even given a cursory nod to conditional talks with the “good Taliban”. After insisting for years that there is nothing good about the Taliban, India is now supportive of talks if they give up violence and cut off links with terrorism (read al Qaida), and if the government in Kabul believes the talks are constitutional.

External affairs minister S.M. Krishna expressed these views to visiting Afghan High Peace Council chairman and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani in talks on Thursday.

A US withdrawal from Afghanistan without India being able to consolidate its goodwill, experts in the security establishment believe, will be akin to gifting strategic space to Pakistan, like in the years between the Soviet pullout in 1989 and the 2001 US invasion.

Third, the establishment run by Pakistan army chief General Ashfaq Kayani has already expressed disappointment with the US over the Abbottabad operation that killed Osama bin Laden and last week’s decision by the Pentagon to suspend $800 million worth of military aid.

While the US is insisting that Pakistan’s military intensify operations against the Haqqani outfit in Waziristan and in the western border regions with Afghanistan, voices from Kayani’s establishment are threatening to pull out troops from the Afghan border.

A shrill and unsubstantiated Indian allegation right now that Pakistan engineered the blasts in Mumbai would give the Pakistani military just the excuse it needs to redeploy its forces from the Durand Line — the undefined border with Afghanistan — to the Line of Control in Kashmir. That, in turn, can give the US more of a reason to expedite its draw-down.