Al-Qaeda to the rescue for Bush's legacy
By M K Bhadrakumar
The Cassandra-like foretelling by American opinion makers almost uniformly
makes out that Pakistan may not survive. True, it is hard to be optimistic.
Setting right these disjointed times is way past the capacity of the present US
The only silver lining seems to be that in an year's time another team will
move into the White House and a clean break becomes possible. Even ardent
specialists in the US security community admit as much. A commentator for
Stratfor, a think-tank closely linked to the security establishment, says, "In
this endgame, all that the Americans want is the status quo in Pakistan. It is
all they can get. And given the way US luck is running, they might not even get
It isn't quite a matter of "luck". Plainly speaking, in the winter of 2001, the
George W Bush administration bit off more than a
superpower should chew in the Khyber Pass. Today, it has no Plan B. The best
hope for the White House is that Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Kiani
"must become Washington's new man in Pakistan" (to quote Stratfor). That is to
say, let's pin the blame for Benazir Bhutto's assassination last week on
al-Qaeda, get on with old business and sit out the coming 12 months.
But smart soldiers like Kiani can't be that dumb, can they? Three types of
prophets of doom are setting the tone in Washington. First come the FOBs -
"Friends of Benazir". The people in the media, think-tanks and government in
the US over whom Bhutto cast her spell - by way of her irresistible personal
charm or through the skills of her top-class public relations handlers - simply
cannot think of a Pakistan without her.
Second, there are America's legions of South Asia experts from an earlier era
who are peeved that the administration with its neo-conservative agenda ignored
their advice in the crafting of Washington's post- 2001 Pakistan policy. They
feel vindicated the policy turned out to be a mess. Third comes the tribe of
terrorism specialists who proliferated in recent years and are greatly
experienced in the politics of fear - including some among them who seem to
believe their phantom enemy is of absolutely cosmic significance.
US shuffles Iran cards
But theirs needn't be the only story. The shadow that Bhutto's assassination is
casting on regional security is of varied hues. That is how it is already being
felt in Tehran. In one swift sweep, almost overnight, Pakistan replaces Iran on
the Bush administration's radar screen. Israel may not like what is happening,
but Vice President Dick Cheney and company won't have even a fighting chance of
reviving the Iran bogey in the remaining term of the administration.
The Bush administration cannot overlook that the crisis brewing in Pakistan and
Afghanistan may turn out to be manifold more serious than all of Tehran's
nuclear program and its support of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and
the Iraqi Shi'ite militia in Iraq combined together, let alone the political
challenge posed by Iran's rising regional influence.
For the first time since it expounded the "axis of evil" theory, exactly six
years ago - grouping Iraq, Iran and North Korea - the Bush administration is
compelled to view Iran with a sense of proportion. The hardline policies aimed
at destabilizing the Iranian regime look downright irresponsible in the changed
circumstances. A military option is out of the question. A regime change in
But the "Iran question" as such may not fade away from the Middle East, though
rhetoric - US and Iranian - has appreciably diminished in recent weeks. Part of
the problem is that a bitterly contested parliamentary election looms ahead in
March in Iran. Nonetheless, Iran-US relations are poised for a change of
course. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's offer to meet her Iranian
counterpart Manuchehr Mottaki "any place and any time and anywhere" testifies
to that. There is guarded optimism in Tehran about the upcoming fourth round of
US-Iran meetings regarding cooperation over Iraq's stabilization.
Rice said a week ago, "We don't have permanent enemies ... what we have is a
policy that is open to ending confrontation or conflict with any country that
is willing to meet us on those terms." Mottaki promptly responded, "Ground can
be prepared." He welcomed Washington's "more respectful and logical approach"
toward Tehran, which, he insisted, became possible since "they [US officials]
have gotten a better understanding of Iran's key role in the region and its
determination to obtain its legal rights [for enriching uranium]."
Iranians are pragmatists and after Bhutto's assassination they will have
assessed by now that the developments in Pakistan leave the Bush administration
with no option but to earnestly probe for ways of normalizing relations with
To be or not to be ...
Iran may once again prove to be useful, as in 2001, for the logistical needs of
Washington's "war on terror" in Afghanistan. Arguably, Iran can be a substitute
route if the supply lines for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)
forces in Afghanistan via Pakistan become choked. NATO and the US cannot get a
more realistic partner than Iran for stabilizing Afghanistan. Iran's
cooperation will be useful in forestalling the Taliban's northwardly march to
the Amu Darya region and in stabilizing western Afghanistan, where NATO forces
are coming under threat.
The alternative would be for Washington to go crawling back to Moscow and ask
for air and land corridors to Afghanistan. It appears NATO made some soundings
at the Russia-NATO Council meeting at foreign minister level in Brussels on
December 7. Following the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said:
"We discussed the situation in Afghanistan. The vital security interests of
Russia and the NATO nations coincide here. It is both the threat of drugs and
the lingering terrorist threat. They have to be fought by combined efforts."
Lavrov added, "We [Russia and NATO] are also considering other cooperation
possibilities, particularly in logistic support of the International Security
Assistance Force and in helping to equip the Afghan National Army. I think
there is a good field in this regard where we can move towards finding mutually
acceptable forms of interaction."
Writing in the Russian journal Ekspert a week later, in a lengthy essay on
Russian foreign policy, Lavrov seemed to hark back to the discussions in
Brussels when he revealed intriguingly, "We're [Moscow] also witnessing some
gleams of qualitative shifts in the analysis of the contemporary phase of world
developments in the US and Europe, although so far mostly at the level of the
expert community. At the same time, it is obvious that our partners are
thinking that the thought process has begun. One of the conclusions being drawn
at that is the realization of the fundamentally non-confrontational character
of Russian foreign policy."
With Bhutto's assassination, Washington must now hasten its "thought process".
There is a hard decision to take. Both Iran and Russia would be sensible
partners in the "war on terror" in Afghanistan. But neither would respond to a
selective engagement by Washington. The Bush administration will need William
Shakespeare's Shylock to weigh the relative advantage in engaging Iran or
Moscow. That's where Bush's forthcoming tour of Israel, the Palestinian
territories and the Persian Gulf allies could be useful.
One thing is already clear. The Iran nuclear issue refuses to go away. It may
have taken a turn for the better lately, but, as China's People's Daily noted,
this is far from a denouement. The US "will have to ferment new plans and work
out new strategies over the Iranian nuclear issue both during and after the
Bush administration ... Iran might benefit from the disparity among the world
powers: it could strive for a more favorable international environment and
strategic standing. In conclusion, concerned parties on the Iran issue are
presently considering their own interests in relation to actual conditions in
preparation for a new round of strategic contests."
Question mark on US global strategy
But Moscow poses even more fundamental difficulties. In the runup to the
Russia-NATO meeting in Brussels, in exhaustive media comments, a Russian
Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow underscored in December that "both
successes and complications" bedeviled Moscow's relations with the
trans-Atlantic alliance. He said the work ahead is not going to be easy.
Among problem areas, he listed "international legal implications" of NATO's
transformation as a global political organization outside the control of the
United Nations; NATO military structures "drawing closer to our borders";
further NATO enlargement plans; differences over the CFE (Conventional Armed
Forces in Europe) Treaty; and "deployment of a third US global missile defense
system in Europe and its conjunction with MD [missile defense] research and
development within the framework of NATO."
In other words, in the post-Bhutto scenario, Washington needs to rework the
agenda of the forthcoming NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, in April.
NATO's third round of enlargement plans was listed as the key topic of
discussion in Bucharest. Now, Pakistan and Afghanistan will inevitably
Will Washington press ahead with earlier plans to get the NATO summit to
endorse the admission of Ukraine and Georgia? In the present crisis situation
in Afghanistan and Pakistan, can the Bush administration afford to annoy the
Kremlin? A Russian spokesman has warned, "We [Moscow] are convinced that the
process of NATO enlargement has no relationship to the modernization of the
alliance itself or to the ensuring of security in Europe whatsoever. On the
contrary, it is a serious factor of provocation, fraught with the appearance of
new dividing lines and a lowering of the level of mutual trust."
The Kremlin has clearly stated the bottom line, it will not be happy even if
the US and the EU do not insist on forcing Kosovo's independence, or proceed to
deploy NATO in the breakaway republic outside the framework of the United
Nations Security Council. Lavrov underlined, "The main thing is the striving to
jointly work on a basis of mutual respect, including respect for the analysis
of each other regarding the threats, which today are common to us." He stressed
that at the Bucharest summit, if NATO went ahead with its enlargement policy in
parallel with the alliance's transformation, "we [Moscow] are convinced that
this would not contribute to bolstering our common security or fighting the
common threats to us". The implicit warning is that cooperation in the "war on
terror" could be conditional on Washington rolling back its containment policy
It is obvious that both Moscow and Tehran now estimate that the crisis in
Afghanistan and Pakistan has a direct bearing on US global strategies. If NATO
fails in Afghanistan, a huge question mark would arise over the alliance's
future. As a US Congressional Research report in October noted, NATO's mission
in Afghanistan is "a test of the alliance's political will and military
capabilities". But that isn't all. What the US think-tankers obfuscate is that
the US's ability to retain its trans-Atlantic leadership role in the post-Cold
War era is itself in the firing line.
Both Moscow and Tehran stand to gain in a multipolar world order in which their
regional influence comes into greater play. If Washington fails in its
post-Cold War strategy of bolstering NATO by whipping up enemy images (eg,
al-Qaeda), the process towards multipolarity will substantially gain.
Significantly, Tehran and Moscow refuse to characterize Bhutto's assassination
as the work of al-Qaeda.
Beijing's reaction has been equally cautious. A Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokesman initially condemned Bhutto's assassination as an "act of terrorism".
But Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei, who visited the Pakistan
Embassy in Beijing to sign a condolence book the next day, didn't refer to
terrorism at all, but expressed the hope that the people of Pakistan "could
overcome the current difficulty as soon as possible and jointly safeguard
social stability and development of the country".
Chinese commentators have noted that "the situation in Afghanistan proved far
more sophisticated than predicted" and it had become difficult for NATO to
"cover up the troops' embarrassing position in the country". A People's Daily
commentary analyzed last year that the Afghanistan debacle, coupled with the
deterioration of NATO's relations with Russia and the failure of Brussels'
efforts to secure a footing in Central Asia, have hampered the alliance from
fulfilling its target of making 2007 its year of "transformation".
The commentary assessed that consequently that "the US pull within NATO has
declined, and the US's trans-Atlantic role is becoming uncertain. It was widely
hoped that the shift of top leadership in Germany, France and Britain might
inject new vitality to US-European Union relations. But it is still hard to say
whether the new 'troika' can usher in a situation Washington optimistically
All three countries - Russia, China and Iran - openly share an interest in
seeing that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security
Treaty Organization play a significant role in stabilizing the Afghan
situation. None of them has remained content with the US's (or NATO's) monopoly
over conflict resolution in a region of such vital importance to their
security, though they are supportive of the "war on terror" in Afghanistan as
Clearly, with Bhutto's assassination and with Pakistan tottering on the abyss,
what stares the Bush administration in the face is a potential unraveling of
its global strategy built around the "war on terror" and "Islamofascism". The
easy way out will be to goad General Kiani to become Washington's "new man in
Pakistan" so that the hunt for al-Qaeda goes on.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service
for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan
(1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).