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    Central Asia
     Jun 30, 2012

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A Russia House on the Indian Ocean
By M K Bhadrakumar

On a practical plane, Pakistan's geography has been the lynchpin of the US regional strategies in Afghanistan and Central Asia, and without Pakistan's cooperation no viable (non-Russian, non-Iranian) communication link with those regions is sustainable, which in turn, jeopardizes the plans for the establishment of a permanent US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military presence in the region in the "Eurasian heartland".

Indeed, energy security is the Achilles heel of Pakistan's political economy, and it debilitates Pakistan's capacity to develop a strategic autonomy that safeguards its vital interests and core concerns and, conversely, the current level of acute energy


deficiency makes Pakistan very vulnerable to US pressures. Therefore, the helping hand from Russia, even if it is self-seeking, would have serious geopolitical implications for the US regional strategies insofar as it results in augmenting Pakistan's independence and resilience and creating space for it to navigate its way through a particularly difficult and dangerous corridor of time when it is beset with existential problems.

Again, a coming together of the energy producing and energy consuming countries of Asia is the ultimate nightmare scenario for the US, which fears exclusion from the ensuing matrix of regional cooperation involving countries that happen to be spearheading the fastest-growing region in the world economy. The entire US strategy in the post-Soviet era had aimed at forestalling such a catastrophic eventuality that might put paid to the US efforts to get embedded in the "Eurasian heartland", which includes or overlooks some of the major regional powers in the coming decades - Russia, China, Kazakhstan, India, Pakistan and Iran. (Turkey's admission as a "dialogue partner" of the SCO - at China's behest - at the Beijing summit last month further unnerves the US.)

To be sure, a host of other issues also arise. The Russian moves in Pakistan effectively outflank the US' policies to isolate Iran. If hostilities erupt between the US and Iran, Washington faces almost near-total isolation in the region between the Persian Gulf and Malacca Strait. On the other hand, the IP project (which seems a priority for Russia and China alike) would have a devastating impact on the US' Iran policy, as it would manifoldly enhance Iran's strategic prowess. The US will factor in that it is a matter of time before China gets connected to the IP gas pipeline. These communication links effectively help China also to reduce its dependence on the Malacca Strait.

Worst of all, Washington is unsure of India's approach to the emergent geopolitical shift that Russia is triggering. India and Russia have traditionally enjoyed mutual trust and confidence. India and Iran also enjoy fundamentally strong ties, which have even withstood the US pressure. India is independently working on the normalization of its ties with China, and the two countries have made appreciable headway in this direction. (Curiously, the Indian and Chinese state-sector energy companies recently concluded a memorandum of understanding agreeing not to outbid each other in third countries and to cooperate across-the-board including in the two countries' domestic sector.)

Most important, energy security is becoming a gnawing worry for the Indian leadership as the economy expands rapidly and the need for assured access to reasonably priced energy sources is becoming an all-consuming passion in the country's external policies. (India's External Affairs Minister S M Krishna is heading for Tajikistan, which is the energy source of the CASA project, on Tuesday.)

The US' diplomatic and politico-military options to counter the Russian moves in Pakistan would lie principally in the direction of influencing the policies of Pakistan and India. The US is pursuing a mixed approach toward Pakistan, alternating soft signals with a flexing of muscle that is vaguely assuming threatening overtones already. At one point recently, it all but seemed that the US would render an apology of sorts for the massacre of Pakistani troops in a US military strike last November on the Afghan-Pakistan border following which the reopening of the Pakistani transit routes for the NATO convoys could be expected within the month of June.

However, following the Russian-Pakistani confabulations, the US line has hardened. Another attack has taken place on Monday on Pakistani troops (18 of whom were brutally beheaded) by militant groups of obscure background operating from "safe havens" inside Afghanistan. It doesn't need much ingenuity to work out that the US forces in Afghanistan prefer to look away from what these militants are doing right beneath their nose. (Curiously, these militant "safe havens" also happen to be in the region through which the CASA transmission lines from Tajikistan will have to pass.)

At any rate, on Wednesday, the US' commander in Afghanistan, John Allen, came down to the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi to propose to the Pakistani army chief Parvez Kayani that the two sides could undertake "joint operations" against the militants operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

This is indeed going to be a cat-and-mouse game. The signs are ominous. The relentless drone attacks through the recent months have destabilized Pakistan's tribal areas adjacent to the border with Afghanistan. The drones are causing a lot of civilian casualties, so much so that the United Nations officials begin to wonder if these wanton killings would constitute "war crimes".

The drone attacks infuriate the people who live in the tribal areas and in turn are fueling anti-government sentiments, while Islamabad looks helpless in stopping the US from violating the country's territorial integrity. Quite obviously, Pakistan is hunkering down, and the US won't allow that to continue. The indications are that the US will step up pressure on Pakistan and escalate the tensions in a calibrated way.

A paradigm shift
The heart of the matter is that Pakistan's "strategic defiance" has taken the US by surprise. The US always counted on the perceived comprador mentality of the Pakistani elites and has been somewhat thrown off balance in discovering that those very same elites (the military leadership, in particular) are no longer what they were supposed to be.

Of course, this is a flawed perspective and at the root of it lies Washington's unwillingness to countenance an honest appraisal as to why this paradigm shift has occurred at all. The US doesn't have to look far to realize the complexities. The latest survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, released on Wednesday, shows that 74% of Pakistanis "hate" the US and hold President Barack Obama in exceptionally low esteem. Interestingly, the most popular Pakistani politician today is Imran Khan (70%), whose main plank is that Pakistan should pull out of the war in Afghanistan and demand that the US troops should pack up their gear and leave the region for good with their war machinery.

The US faces a more complicated challenge with regard to India. Washington has audaciously complimented New Delhi recently by naming India as the "lynchpin" in its Asia-Pacific strategies. But to the discomfiture of the US, India's response has so far been one of deafening silence, while demonstratively distancing itself from any perceived "ganging-up" against China. On the other hand, a crucial mass is steadily accruing in the Sino-Indian normalization. Equally, India has been carefully sequestering its dialogue process with Pakistan from the chill and vagaries of the US-Pakistan standoff. Even with regard to Iran, India has drawn a bottom line and made it clear that it won't be pushed around - and the current signs are that Washington has finally got the point.

Having said that, the US will endeavor to butt into the India-Pakistan dialogue and try to turn its focus away from a broad-based approach in a constructive spirit to the highly emotive issues of Pakistan's support of terrorism and the fidayeen attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, which deeply scarred the Indian psyche and still arouse Indian suspicions regarding Pakistani intentions.

With regard to energy security, the US has encouraged Saudi Arabia to offer a big hand to India, with the hope of encouraging it to reduce its dependence on Iranian oil and in overall terms to wean India away from the IP gas pipeline project. Ideally, Washington would seek a cozy three-way embrace between the US, India and Saudi Arabia, which would keep the Indians away from the alluring thoughts of an SCO energy club.

But the US is unsure, as the Indians also have their preferences and a passion for keeping their thoughts to themselves while making independent choices about how to go about realizing their national objectives in a complicated regional scenario.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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