Dispatch

The Hawks of South Asia

The dream of a lasting peace between Pakistan and India can't happen unless their militaries get out of the way.

NEW DELHIOn May 12, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh traveled to Kabul for the first time since 2005, announcing $500 million in Indian aid, raising India's total contribution to $2 billion for developmental projects for Afghanistan and increasing cooperation on security issues between the two countries' governments, which share hostile relationships with Pakistan. A large contingent of Indian journalists filled the venue where Singh shared the stage with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Pakistan has been wary of the growing Indian influence in Kabul; in the past, Afghan and Indian officials have blamed the attacks on Indian establishments in Afghanistan on terrorist groups under the patronage of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence directorate, which has long used the Taliban and other militants as a proxy for destabilizing India in its near abroad.

Singh's pronouncements in Kabul were followed with great attention in Pakistan. An Indian journalist asked whether India would mount a covert action similar to the United States' Operation Neptune Spear to kill Osama bin Laden if it had credible evidence of fugitives wanted by India -- from leaders of the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Taiba to underworld don Dawood Ibrahim, accused of masterminding the 1993 Bombay blasts -- living in Pakistan. "These are sensitive issues and we don't discuss strategies on terror in press conferences," Singh replied. But he proceeded to downplay the possibility of India conducting a military raid on Pakistani territory by saying, "Experience in the past has been rather frustrating and disappointing. One cannot lose hope. Let me say one thing: I would like to say India is not like the United States."

Yet opinions vary within the Indian establishment. While Singh may sound quiescent notes, some Indian military chiefs and several senior leaders of the prime minister's Congress Party remain hawkish on the question of relations with Pakistan and the settlement of disputes like Kashmir. A few days after bin Laden's killing in Pakistan, reporters on tour with Indian Army chief Gen. V.K. Singh asked him the same question: Could India go after Pakistan-based terrorists? A similar question was thrown at Indian Air Force chief P.V. Naik. The answer in both cases: Yes, we can.

Pakistan retaliated with counterwarnings. Pakistani Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir remarked that such "misadventure" could lead to a "terrible catastrophe"-- sending a quick reminder of his volatile country's nuclear capabilities. Yet some Indian television anchors and strategic-affairs hawks, who make Rush Limbaugh sound like Joseph Nye, continued egging on the Indian government for a raid into Pakistan to assassinate men like Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the chief of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, whom India holds responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

In a move characteristic of the country's competitive politics, India's main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, called on Singh to rethink his Pakistan policy and demand Ibrahim's extradition, noting that "talks and terror cannot coexist." Even within Singh's Congress Party, a majority of leaders were clamoring for an end to talks with Pakistan. "Singh is in a minority even in his party, but he resisted all the pressure to end talks with Pakistan," said an analyst familiar with those discussions.

In the past seven years, Singh has been foremost an advocate of Indian engagement with Pakistan aimed at resolving their several disputes, including the future of Kashmir. A slow process of meetings between Indian and Pakistani officials has lumbered on since late 2003, reaching its most fruitful moment in April 2005, when the two countries agreed to allow a bus service for divided families across the Line of Control (LOC), the de facto border between Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir.

Some of the most hopeful moments in the bitter diplomatic history of Indo-Pak relations followed the trans-LOC bus route success, as back-channel talks between India and Pakistan in 2006 and 2007 backed by Singh and then-President Pervez Musharraf came close to an informal agreement about the way out of the Kashmir dispute. Indian and Pakistani diplomats involved in the talks had come to agree on a largely autonomous Kashmir with soft borders between the Indian-controlled and Pakistani-controlled regions, followed by a gradual demilitarization of the area. But Musharraf lost power in August 2008 and the talks reached a dead end. A year later, India formally ended talks with Pakistan after terrorists based in Pakistan attacked Mumbai in November 2008, killing more than 160 people.

Thus, Singh's insistence in Kabul on not losing hope for peace with Pakistan is important in the volatile context of relations between the nuclear-armed neighbors. He also decisively put to rest the speculation of such an attack that had filled the Indian public sphere in the aftermath of the bin Laden killing. "There is recognition that 'not talking' does not give you any levers. Talking may not solve problems, but not talking does not either. So we have the cycles of talks -- crisis -- no talks -- recovery -- crisis. We stop talking in part because the Indian government has no other means of protest or options against something like [the November 2008 Mumbai attacks]. Ironically, if there were other options, we might not 'suspend' talks," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of Center for Policy Research, India's premier public-policy institute.

India has mounted intense diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to prosecute terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks and their handlers, repeatedly calling for the arrest of the leaders of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Hafiz Saeed, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief. Pakistan has arrested some operatives of Lashkar-e-Taiba, but New Delhi wanted more.

In this edgy, volatile context, when the Indian discourse seems dominated by jingoism, Singh's consistent attempts for a continued dialogue with Pakistan to address the disputes between the two countries are worthy. Singh risked serious political capital for improving bilateral relations by agreeing to decouple action on terrorism from a broader political dialogue aimed at discussing "all outstanding issues" with Pakistan after meeting Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in July 2009. Singh faced intense criticism from hard-liners in India, but he rightly seemed to believe that not talking doesn't achieve anything.

A few more meetings between foreign ministers and secretaries followed in 2010 with little results. Pakistan wanted India to agree on a time frame for beginning discussions on Kashmir and the contested Siachen glacier; India sought progress in investigation and prosecution of those involved in the Mumbai attacks.

The question of Kashmir was in the foreground throughout the summer of 2010 as the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir witnessed intifada-style protests against Indian rule, renewed calls for independence, and deaths of 110 unarmed protesters, mostly teenagers, after Indian troops opened fire to quell the protests. Despite his dream of a legacy of peace in South Asia, Singh was very slow in responding to the crisis in Kashmir. In August 2010, at the height of the crisis, he came on Indian national television. Referring to killings of young Kashmiri protesters, he said, "The events in Kashmir over the past few weeks have caused me great pain. I share the grief, the sorrow, and the sense of loss of every mother, every father, every family, and every child in Kashmir." Yet after the Indian military's opposition, Singh relented from even repealing or partly modifying the notorious Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir, which gives around 500,000 Indian troops based there impunity from prosecution if they kill anyone on suspicion. In September 2010, as Singh was to decide on the AFSPA, India's military chiefs made it clear in person that they opposed any dilution of their powers, insisting on the need for "legal protection" to fight in Kashmir. The laws remain unchanged.

As Kashmir smoldered, the Indian and Pakistani foreign ministers met at the United Nations; the mood was tense, even hostile. Pakistan renewed the old call for a plebiscite in Kashmir and criticized India for human rights violations in Kashmir. "The Jammu and Kashmir dispute is about the exercise of the right to self-determination by the Kashmiri people through a free, fair, and impartial plebiscite under U.N. auspices. Pakistan views the prevailing situation in Indian-occupied Kashmir with grave concern," said Pakistan's then foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. India retorted that Pakistan allowed its territory to be used as a staging ground for attacks directed against its neighbor. "Pakistan must fulfill its solemn commitment of not allowing territory under its control to be used for terrorism directed against India.... Pakistan cannot impart lessons to us on democracy and human rights," S.M. Krishna, the Indian foreign minister replied.

A détente of sorts happened this March, as the two countries were intensely focused on the Cricket World Cup, the subcontinent's most beloved and competitive sporting event, Singh sought re-engagement and invited Gilani to watch the India-Pakistan match with him in the Indian city of Mohali. Inviting Gilani was also a gesture of projecting the legitimacy of Pakistan's civilian government over its Army.

Singh's strategy of engaging Pakistan is seen by diplomatic observers to have the potential to improve trade relations between the two neighbors, though progress on terrorism and resolving Kashmir is expected to be slow -- it's simply the third rail of Indian politics. But on April 28 in Islamabad, the commerce secretaries of India and Pakistan agreed on increasing trade between the countries, which remains a paltry $2 billion, compared to India-China trade of $61 billion. "Apart from economic gains, greater trade will gradually enlarge the constituency of those in Pakistan who have a stake in the normalisation of relations with India," argued Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic-affairs editor of the Indian newspaper the Hindu. Echoing similar sentiments, the Asia Society's recent report, "Pakistan 2020," recommends reforming visa processes, increasing people-to-people contact, and developing cooperative energy projects, such as joint natural gas pipelines and joint electricity-generation projects, to improve relations. Yet economic cooperation, movement of people, and cultural exchanges remain hostage to the questions of Kashmir and terrorism that dominate Indo-Pak relations. Even at the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union had numerous journalists reporting from each other's countries; India and Pakistan each allow only two reporters -- and with limited access.

Although incendiary proclamations have intensified tensions since the killing of bin Laden, the realism of politicians like Singh has ensured that talks will continue. Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries will meet in New Delhi in July. Security agencies of both countries are meeting in mid-June to find ways of working together on curbing the drug trade. Travel dates for Indian and Pakistani delegations to visit the other country to talk about the Mumbai attack investigations are being decided. "Even those pro-talks within the government realize that in the current state, the Pakistan military establishment is not going to yield much," says Mehta, of the Center for Policy Research. For now, Singh seems to understand that hawkish stances achieve little for India and only strengthen the hard-liners in Pakistan. But with both countries' militaries owning so much of the political conversation (particularly in Pakistan), the two nations are a long way from realizing Singh's memorable formulation of making borders irrelevant.

As Singh said in a January 2007 meeting of business leaders in New Delhi, "I dream of a day, while retaining our respective national identities, one can have breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul. That is how my forefathers lived. That is how I want our grandchildren to live." For now, it appears that the dream might have to wait for his great-grandchildren.

ROUF BHAT/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Terror in Abyei

The first interviews with fleeing residents of this Sudanese border town make one thing clear: the regime in Khartoum knows exactly what it is doing.

SOUTH OF ABYEI, Sudan—"I heard a plane way up high and then 'Doom!', the sound of a bomb hitting the ground," explained Mary Ajiang Kur, 37. "My neighbor called out: 'The Arabs are coming!'" recalled Kur, who said she grabbed her children and hid in the bushes.

Soon after, men arrived in her village, outside of Abyei town, the heart of a fertile, 4,000-square-mile area that straddles the provisional border between north and south Sudan.

"They came first on motorbikes and then [Toyota] Landcruisers with guns mounted on them," said Kur. She remembers many of the men were wearing uniforms but said some were wearing civilian clothes. "They started firing towards us. Bullets were landing beside us. We saw people being killed."

Now, Abyei town is eerily quiet. An occasional round of gunfire and the whirr of a United Nations helicopter are the only sounds in a town that is usually populated by around 40,000 people. On the weekend of May 21, according to a U.N. report, the civilian population fled when northern Sudanese troops assaulted the town with heavy weapons, including airplanes and tanks. Khartoum's forces now control the town, although there is still a significant contingent of U.N. peacekeepers stationed there. No reliable estimate of the number of killed and wounded has been produced.

As seen from the air on Sunday, May 29, smoke rose from the remnants of several dwellings. Buildings made of concrete seemed to be largely intact. But the charred foundations of many tukuls, the grass-topped, mudbrick homes that most Abyei residents inhabit, were clearly visible. Among the smoldering remains, blackened bed frames and chairs could be seen. Clothes and other household belongings were strewn outside several homes.

On the main road in the center of town, a handful of men in army uniforms appeared to be organizing the movement of household goods onto a pale mustard-colored pickup truck. Others in civilian clothing were seen carrying goods from houses into large piles on the side of the road. The U.N. reported widespread burning and looting in the days after the attack.

Both the Sudanese government, based in the mainly Arab and Muslim north, and the South Sudan government, based in the largely Christian and animist south, claim ownership over Abyei, a fertile borderland. A 2005 peace deal that ended decades of civil war between north and south failed to reach a final agreement on its status. The region may not be as economically important as it once was: At the time of the 2005 deal, Abyei accounted for one-quarter of Sudan's total oil production; since then, a court ruling has placed the most lucrative fields outside of Abyei's boundaries, and its one remaining oil field is in decline.

The region, however, has acquired a symbolic value that has made negotiations over the area particularly challenging. "Abyei has unfortunately assumed a political character and complexity far removed from the fundamental dispute on the ground," says Zach Vertin, Sudan analyst at the International Crisis Group.

In lieu of an agreement over the region's status, the people of Abyei were supposed to decide for themselves in a referendum in January. It never took place. The South Sudan government argued that only the Ngok Dinka, a settled, non-Arab group who are ethnically and politically southern, should get to vote. Khartoum wanted the Misseriya, a nomadic Arab group who travel through the Abyei region to graze their cattle in the dry season, to also vote, believing that this would secure Abyei for the north. The dispute was being addressed through political negotiations until the north seized Abyei outright, sending thousands of Ngok Dinka fleeing south in terror.

Many of those displaced described a pattern of invasion: after aerial bombardment, armed men advanced in pairs on motorbikes, "one was driving, the other was shooting," followed by larger groups in Landcruisers.

Some of the displaced said they were fired at from the air as they tried to flee. "There were planes shooting at us," said Nyek Atar, 17. Others expressed guilt that they had to leave behind those who were too old to run. All said that they left with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.

Those who hid within Abyei town report seeing tanks rolling into the center on Saturday, May 21. One woman says she saw a tank drive over the bodies of three young men she knew who had been shot earlier by troops in a Landcruiser.

Many who fled say that after realizing they were under attack and running for some distance, they hid in the bushes until it was dark. What followed were days on the move. Aid workers stationed in the neighboring town of Agok, about 20 miles southwest of Abyei, say that this was where many thousands first congregated. But on May 22, rumors circulated that northern troops were going to advance on Agok. The displaced took off again, heading further south.

In the panic to escape, many became separated from their families.

In Turalei, one of the main collecting points in South Sudan, people are desperately seeking news of missing relatives. Aluel Nyoul, who is unsure of her age but looks to be about 10, clung tightly to the hand of her cousin. "I started running with my parents, but we lost each other on the way," said Nyuol. "I don't know where they are. I don't know where anyone is. Just my cousin here."

Many sustained injuries as they ran. Mothers tell of how difficult it was for their young children on a journey of up to five days with no food or water. Sunday Taban Lobaya, interviewed in the South Sudan town of Wau, said her two-year-old son died of dehydration on the way. "I had to just bury him and keep going with my other children," said Lobaya, who is seven months pregnant.

At first glance, it all sounds and looks awfully reminiscent of Darfur, the western region where the Sudanese government and its allied janjaweed militia committed atrocities against non-Arab residents that the U.S. government in 2004 said were tantamount to genocide. One should be cautious about rushing to draw the Darfur analogy, however. The testimony of the (admittedly moderate) sample of Abyei's displaced population I have spoken with in recent days suggests there may be important differences between the two situations.

None of the Ngok Dinka people I interviewed reported being subjected to any of the racial slurs that characterized the janjaweed attacks on people in Darfur. To my knowledge, no sexual violence has yet been reported, although this certainly does not mean there was none. And death from direct violence does not seem to be a primary feature in the eyewitness accounts to date, though this may be only because so many people I met with started to run the moment they heard bombs falling in the distance.

Despite many years of violent tension with the Misseriya, the involvement of Misseriya militia in the attacks, and the general sense that "the Arabs" did this, many displaced seem to be clear that the primary culprit is the Sudanese government.

"The Misseriya do not have Antonovs" one woman told me, referring to the planes used in the initial assault. The same message was echoed by South Sudanese politician and Abyei native Luka Biong. "It was good that it was not the Misseriya who launched the attack on Abyei. It was clearly the NCP [Sudan's ruling party]. It shows the Misseriya have just been used by them."

This is the second time the people of Abyei have been forced to run for their lives in just three years. In 2008, Abyei was razed by the Sudanese government and its allied militia. The violence followed a dispute between northern and southern soldiers stationed in the town under a joint administration set up by the 2005 peace agreement.

"In 2008 everything was burnt and destroyed," explained Aker Chol Deng, 20, who was displaced again by the recent violence. Deng says that her family had just finished rebuilding their home this year. Asked if she would return to Abyei again, Deng answered quickly, and with some frustration at the question. "It is home." Then, placing her hand on the leg she injured as she ran, she added, "But only if it is safe."

Trevor Snapp/AFP/Getty Images