Thursday, September 15, 2005

Pragmatism from Pakistan

An interesting editorial from Karachi.

By Irfan Husain

A year or two ago, I had made the point that recognition of a state is not a badge for good behaviour. Rather, it is an acknowledgement of a reality. The truth is that there are a lot of very unpleasant countries out there, and if we only talked to states we liked, our cost on foreign missions could be reduced substantially. Frankly, if recognition were to be conferred on the basis of civilised behaviour, Islamabad’s diplomatic enclave would be far less crowded.

Currently, our official position is that we would recognise Israel when it vacates the West Bank and a Palestinian state comes into being. But what kept us from normalising ties with the Jewish state between 1948 and 1967, the year in which it occupied Gaza and the West Bank? For nearly 20 years, we referred to Israel as "the illegal Zionist entity," although it came into being with the blessings of the United Nations.

Granted, there were many horrors associated with the birth of Israel, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are still suffering as a direct result. Their plight is largely responsible for the anger and bitterness that have radicalised two generations of Muslims. But the creation of Pakistan was not exactly pain-free: at Partition, nearly 40 per cent of Sindh’s population comprised Hindus.

How many remain today? Today, Hindus from Sindh are scattered around the world, often doing remarkably well, but even their children talk nostalgically of Hyderabad and Karachi. For their sake, I am glad they have not witnessed the sad state these cities have been reduced to.

Population transfers are messy, painful events, and from the comfort of hindsight and physical distance, one can afford to be philosophical about such matters. Certainly millions of Palestinians have every right to feel cheated, abused and oppressed. But time moves on. Individuals can rail against the injustices of the world, but states and governments have to deal with realities as they exist at a given time.

The fact is that for nearly two decades, we refused to recognise Israel because Arab countries had decided not to. And yet Turkey, another non-Arab Muslim country, opened diplomatic ties with the Jewish state soon after its creation because it perceived that it was in its interest to do so. We have denied ourselves the benefits of enlightened self-interest because of our fuzzy notions of the ummah, that nebulous, ill-defined and incoherent Islamic brotherhood that supposedly cuts across man-made state borders.

The reality is very different. Never were a people more divided than Muslims are today. Indeed, more Muslims have been killed by their fellow Muslims than from any other cause. By and large, Arab countries have generally acted in their own interest without caring what the "ummah" might think. Thus, Egypt and Jordan opened diplomatic relations with Israel when it suited them. Other Middle Eastern states trade and talk with Israel all the time. Israeli tourists flock to Morocco and other destinations in the Maghreb.

Even Pakistan’s leaders have been pragmatic when they needed to be. One of the minor revelations in the Hamoodur Rahman Commission report is the fact that during the disastrous 1971 war, when Yahya Khan asked Nixon for military assistance, he was told that the quickest way would be for him to accept Israeli Skyhawk fighter bombers. Desperate, Yahya Khan accepted the offer. However, the war was over far too quickly for the planes to arrive.

During the Afghan war, the CIA bought Soviet arms captured by Israel in its various wars with Arab armies, and transferred them to Pakistan for onward supply to the mujahideen. This was obviously done with Zia’s blessings, and yet he was the grand patron of the religious parties. None of the MMA leaders, today trying to make political capital out of the Kasuri-Shalom meeting in Istanbul, uttered a squeak then.

When the mullahs pretended such rage over President Musharraf’s initiative, they found it difficult to rally many people behind them. Their demonstrations were more pro-forma than passionate. The truth is that for most people, this is a non-issue. Even the poor, illiterate silent majority realise that Israel is a reality that has come to stay, whether Pakistan recognises it or not. Hence their indifference to the religious right’s ineffectual protests.

At the end of the day, we cannot forever subordinate our policies to suit other nations. The fact is that we have no territorial dispute with Israel. Diplomatically and strategically, we ignore its existence to our peril. Foreign policy should be conducted on the basis of cold calculation and pragmatism, and not be motivated by idealism and ideology.