Column: When glasses clinked in White House

Written by William H Avery | Updated: Nov 28 2009, 06:14am hrs
One year ago armed gunmen were terrorising Mumbai. This week Barack Obama toasted Manmohan Singh and India at a White House state dinner. It was a toast to everyone who favours prudence over haste, restraint over aggression, and diplomacy over war.

The clink of those two glasses was Indias response to 26/11, and it was louder than a thousand artillery shells. Three days later the sound must be ringing in the ears of those who wish to do India harm.

26/11 has become shorthand for an event so horrifying that it defies description; Mumbai attacks just wont do. The number of such events has become distressingly large. India also has 11/7 and 13/12. Then there are the attacks elsewhere. In addition to Americas 9/11, the Brits have 7/7 and the Spaniards have 11/3. It takes a Shakuntala Devi to keep them all straight.

One of the scariest things about 26/11 is how easily it could happen again. This is not a criticism of Indias police and intelligence capabilities, imperfect as they are. In a free society, especially a large one with thousands of kilometres of land and sea borders, it is impossible to defend fully against suicide attacks. One can only minimise their number and their impact by working to ensure that no attacks involve chemical, biological or nuclear weapons.

If there are additional attacks on India, the government will find it increasingly difficult to resist some sort of military retaliation. We in America certainly cannot pass judgement if India elects to follow this course. Yet, India has surely noted that eight years after 9/11 the US is still grappling with the consequences of its response in Afghanistan and Iraq.

And as India continues to develop its economy and improve its global standing, its core predicamentthat it has more to lose from a military confrontation than Pakistan doesbecomes more acute. Indias restraint thus far looks wise. As we mourn the victims of 26/11, we can celebrate a consequence of this restraint: the (almost) complete decoupling of India and Pakistan in the worlds eyes.

India and Pakistan, different nations from birth, have taken starkly divergent paths since then. Today they have little in common apart from their ancestry. Nonetheless, for years Pakistan was successful in promoting Indo-Pak as the prism through which the world sees India. India was complicit in the hyphenation by making Pakistan the focus of its foreign policy.

One of Singhs greatest achievements has been to change that, first with the US nuclear deal, and then with the response to 26/11. Had India retaliated for 26/11, it would have been pulled back into the Indo-Pak hyphenation for years to come. As it is, Indias restraint has won the worlds admiration, and foreign leaders like Obama treat Singh with a respect bordering on deference.

The Indo-Pak mindset will be slow to disappear entirely; to Indias disappointment, it popped up again in last weeks US-China joint statement. But Obama and Singh had plenty of things to talk about besides Pakistan: a global strategic partnership encompassing trade, economic development, clean energy, education, and health as well as counter-terrorism. With India safely above the fray, Pakistan is left to be part of a new, ignominious hyphenation: Af-Pak.

Watching Singh being feted in Washington must be tough on Pakistans generals. But envy can be a powerful motivator. The day after the state dinner, Pakistan charged seven people for their roles in 26/11. It is a small step, to be sure, but perhaps the start of a journey to responsibility.

Pakistan is sandwiched between two countries that offer alternative visions for what it can become: either a failed state under threat of complete Islamisation, or a stable democracy respected by the world. Pakistan has to choose what it wants to be, and fight for that vision. India, for its part, can help Pakistan make the right choice through continued success on the world stage and refusing to be drawn into a mutually destructive conflict.

Perhaps, one day soon, Pakistan will no longer like to fight India and instead fight to be like India. That would be a fine tribute to Indias handling of 26/11.

The author is a former US diplomat