Even though our headlines grow increasingly somber by the day, they remain startlingly oblivious to how near we are to an all-out nuclear war.
Earlier this month, we came perilously close to such a flashpoint when the Sri Lankan cricket team was attacked by a highly organized group of terrorists in Lahore.
It is worth noting that the Sri Lankan cricket team was in Pakistan to fill in for the Indians, who had withdrawn from the tour after the Mumbai attacks. But imagine that the Indian government had not canceled the tour — not an entirely unthinkable proposition, given that the two countries have played each other an incredible forty seven times in the last five years.
Imagine that it was the Indian cricket team making that fateful journey in the tour bus near Gadaffi stadium.
For millions of Indians, their cricketers are like Michael Jordan and Jesus Christ rolled into one, precocious bundles of talent delivering salvation on a daily basis. Even if one of those cricketers were to find themselves at the wrong end of a stray bullet, the Indian government would have little choice but to declare war — especially given that this is an election year.
In the event of an all-out war the first casualty (before the millions that will tragically follow in a battle between two nuclear rivals) would be the American war on terror. Pakistan would redeploy its troops from the troubled Afghanistan region to its Eastern border. An American military already strapped for resources would find it difficult, if not impossible to tackle a resurgent Taliban.
A dangerous reduction in Pakistani troop levels fighting the Taliban is not mere conjecture.
Most recently, in the immediate aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, the Pakistani army, fearing a reaction from India, moved over 10,000 troops from the western border to the Indian front.
In 2001, after armed terrorists launched an attack on the Indian Parliament, Pakistan redeployed over 120,000 troops that were otherwise engaged in fighting the Taliban to the Line of Control in Kashmir in response to an Indian build-up of over half a million soldiers.
To take a self-serving view (consistent with the last two decades of American foreign policy), a reduction of hundreds of thousands of soldiers is a luxury the American military can ill-afford.
To avoid an irreversible setback to the war on terror, President Obama should deliver on his election promise of adopting a twenty first century approach towards Pakistan. (During the debates, South Asians chuckled with glee, as he memorably became the first American Presidential candidate ever to pronounce “Pakistan” correctly, even as McCain grappled with a fictional “Qardari.”)
There have already been some significant breaks with the past.
Within a few months of assuming office, Hillary Clinton has called for a “big-tent” meeting with all players who have a stake in Afghanistan. “If we move forward with such a meeting,” she said, “It is expected that Iran would be invited, as a neighbor of Afghanistan.”
On a global footing, the Obama administration needs to take this progressive strategy one step farther to the East and make room for India, who like Pakistan, is a also victim of terrorism in the region (Several members of the Lashkar-E Taiba, the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks operate freely in the North Western province).
A similar global outlook needs to be fostered even within Pakistan. A twenty first century approach would focus not merely on the troubled North West Frontier Province. It would also encourage the dismantling of terrorist infrastructures across the country — from the Al Qaeda camps in Swat to the LET training camps in far away Punjab.
A twenty first century approach would look beyond mere ideology. Surprisingly, the terrorists can teach us in this regard. They have consistently abandoned rigid fundamentalist positions to achieve more secular objectives. To give just one example, noted analyst B. Raman pointed out after the attacks on the Sri Lankan team that the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), a member of the International Islamic Front (IIF) of Al Qaeda has a history of collaboration with the Sri Lankan LTTE — even though the LTTE has a track record of persecuting Muslims.
The Obama administration has already signaled a willingness to look beyond narrow geographies and ideologies. Let’s hope they stay the course. They could make headway in taking on the Taliban. They could deliver meaningful change to the people of India, who live every day not also in fear of a terror attack, but also in dread of an irrational response from their government. They could provide relief to the long-suffering population of Pakistan that has been an innocent victim of international crossfire since the 1980s. And they can inject life back again into the beautiful game of cricket, with which its silly points, leg slips and rest days has no reason to get mixed up in the messy affairs of the modern world.
Arun Krishnan is the author of The Loudest Firecracker, a coming of age novel set in urban India and the host of “Learn Hindi from Bollywood Movies,” the number one rated Indian podcast on iTunes.