Civilian political leaders have consistently faced opposition from the army in their efforts to reduce tension between India and Pakistan. This was especially true in the case of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who secretly negotiated conventional arms control measures in 1989 with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that were snuffed out when discovered by the army. In 1999, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wanted to de-escalate the crisis resulting from the army's invasion of Kargil in Kashmir, and this was one of the factors that led to his ouster by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Now President Asif Ali Zardari has made clear that he would like to pick up where Bhutto, his late wife, left off.
Zardari is often dismissed as a corrupt playboy incapable of governing, and he has indeed been a weak administrator. But he has demonstrated surprising courage and consistency in seeking to downgrade the Kashmir issue and to jump-start trade with India as the key to easing Indian-Pakistani tensions.
Significantly, it was in the weeks preceding the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack that Zardari first went public with his peace overtures. Dismissing the threat of an Indian attack, he declared that the Muslim insurgents fighting Indian rule in Kashmir were "terrorists." Then, two days before the Mumbai attack, he said, "I can assure you Pakistan will not use nuclear weapons first against India."
This reversed Pakistan's policy of deliberate ambiguity on the first use of nuclear weapons and outraged military leaders. Was this the last straw for the army? Was the Mumbai attack instigated by Islamist hard-liners to wreck Zardari's peace campaign, as one of his closest advisors suggested to me? In any case, the army has largely succeeded in silencing him.
To demonstrate sensitivity to Indian concerns about Pakistan, Obama should make clear that the United States accepts the findings of an Indian intelligence probe of the Mumbai attack. The inquiry showed that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) supported the attack by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. The director of Obama's own initial review of his Afghanistan policy, Bruce Riedel, who has had access to the Indian report, concluded that it "reinforces the sense that Pakistan is riding a jihadist Frankenstein." Given the level of detail in the Indian probe, he declared, there appears to be "no question that the ISI had a role in Mumbai." Acknowledging that the ISI is behind Pakistani-based Islamist efforts to destabilize and dismember India is the necessary first step for the United States to demonstrate that it is serious about a true partnership with New Delhi.
Selig Harrison is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.