Security networks’ distrust of increased business dealings is counter-productive, warns Pakistani PM’s brother
The powerful brother of Pakistan’s prime minister has warned the military establishments of both India and Pakistan not to block efforts to sweep aside trade barriers between the two distrustful neighbours.
On Indian affairs Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of Punjab, is widely seen as the de facto Pakistani foreign minister, conducting diplomatic missions to Delhi on behalf of his brother Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister.
But speaking to the Guardian he warned that distrustful “security agencies” in both Pakistan and India were one of the two main “blockages” holding back plans to liberalise trade, which the Sharifs believe will provide a desperately needed boost to Pakistan’s moribund economy.
“Security agencies on both sides need to really understand that in today’s world, a security-led vision is obviously driven by economic security,” he said. “Unless you have economic security then you can’t have general security.”
While the Sharif brothers, in common with most mainstream politicians in Pakistan, are impatient for a rapprochement with India, the military is far more wary.
Pakistan and India have fought three wars in the nearly seven decades since independence and tensions over the disputed province of Kashmir erupted in violence several times in the last year.
Pakistan’s powerful military has warned the Sharifs against making rapid concessions, particularly in the runup to India’s general election. The incumbent Congress party is struggling to hold off a strong challenge from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party.
Manmohan Singh, the prime minister, has long favoured better relations with Pakistan and may still travel across the frontier before the polls, which are due in April or May.
At the same time jihadi organisations in Pakistan with considerable street power have noisily protested against any trade deals while much of the former Himalayan kingdom of Kashmir remains within India.
But the brothers are determined to make progress. Sharif said disputes including Kashmir, cross-border water rights and the Siachen glacier – where soldiers from both sides are engaged in a gruelling, high-altitude standoff – would only be resolved through “dialogue and imaginative thinking”.
“If we remain hostage to our past then we will go nowhere,” Sharif said in an interview at his private mansion in Lahore.
“We have fought three wars and it brought nothing but devastation and destruction. It brought miseries on both sides. It added more poverty, more unemployment. It solved nothing.”
This week India expressed its annoyance with the slow pace of reform in Pakistan when Anand Sharma, India’s commerce and industry minister, cancelled a trip to Pakistan due to coincide with the second trade show to be held by Indian companies in Lahore on Friday. Sharma said Pakistan had failed to enact trade-boosting measures that had been agreed upon, including the start of round-the-clock truck passage at one of only two border crossings and the opening up to trade of hundreds of currently restricted items.
Even though Pakistan and India share thousands of miles of border, common languages and many cultural traditions, trade is negligible.
Few goods cross through the sleepy border crossing at Wagah border, which sits between Lahore and the Indian city of Amritsar – just a dozen miles from each.
Some goods are traded via third countries such as the United Arab Emirates, a practice Sharif describes as “very, very expensive”.
India also continues to press Pakistan to tackle militants targeting Indian-held Kashmir, in particular Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Punjab-based jihadist group that was responsible for the devastating terrorist attacks on the city of Mumbai in 2008.
Sharif said he told Singh during a meeting in Delhi in December that the matter was with Pakistan’s courts and “those who are found to be involved, there is no question they will be punished”.
Indian officials say such assurances are not new and that Islamabad needs to “walk the walk, after talking the talk”.
Many observers, conscious of LeT’s historic relationship with Pakistan’s military intelligence agency, are sceptical that anyone will ever be brought to book. Hafiz Saeed, founder of LeT, lives and preaches openly in Lahore despite a $10m US government bounty on his head.
In recent weeks Maulana Masood Azhar, the chief of Jaish-e-Mohammed, a militant group that attacked the Indian parliament in 2001, has also taken up a greater public role, even addressing a public rally two weeks ago.
But Sharif said India has its own hardline groups opposed to peace efforts, naming the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a rightwing Hindu nationalist organisation which he said regularly protested against Pakistan.
Sharif said Islamabad had presented credible evidence of Indian involvement in the separatist insurgency raging in the troubled province of Baluchistan.
“Both countries need to stop the blame game jointly resolve to move aside these roadblocks and move forward with a clear-cut agenda,” he said.
Nonetheless, in a bid to appease hardline nationalists, Pakistan has dropped efforts to grant India “most favoured nation” status. In a purely semantic reworking, it has opted instead for the less inflammatory “non-discriminatory market access”.
Indian officials said the issue of involvement in Baluchistan was raised at a strained meeting between Singh and Nawaz Sharif in New York last year. “The prime minister subsequently said he had seen no credible evidence from the Pakistani side to back the allegations and since then there has been no change in that,” the Delhi official said.
Analyst Ashok Mehta, a retired Indian army general, said Sharif was wrong to say Indian “security agencies” were opposed to better relations with Pakistan, because many senior officers believed an improvement in relations with Pakistan “would free us up to deal with the greater threat, which is China”.
Mehta said that, outside Kashmir, the Indian army and intelligence services were “subservient to the civilian leadership”.
“The big difference between security officials in Pakistan and India is that here they take orders from a civilian government,” he told the Guardian.
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