Strange storm brews in South Asia By M K Bhadrakumar
No sooner had the guns fallen silent and the terrorist carnage ended in Mumbai
than a keen three-way diplomatic tussle began involving India, Pakistan and the
United States. The two South Asian nuclear powers are locked in race to get the
US on their respective side.
For the US, though, it is no longer a matter of acting as a fair-minded,
neutral mediator. Today, Washington is a full-fledged participant with its own
stakes in the South Asian strategic power equations, thanks to the war in
Afghanistan, which is critically poised. Indeed, the South Asian brew couldn't
be more strange.
As "The Old Man" in William Shakespeare's play Macbeth would say,
"Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange: but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings."
Washington seems to apprehend that the escalating tensions in South Asia may
spin out of hand. According to the latest indications, US Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice is arriving in New Delhi on Wednesday on a mediatory mission.
Again, Israeli intelligence Mossad is watching from the shade. The apparently
Pakistani fidayeen (guerillas) who attacked Mumbai made it a point to
target Jews, including Israeli citizens, for particularly gruesome violence.
There were nine Jewish victims. Israeli experts have arrived in Mumbai.
Israel's fury knows no bounds.
Meanwhile, China is gently wading into the eye of the storm. On Saturday,
China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi discussed by telephone the crisis with his
Pakistani counterpart, Shah Mehmood Qureshi. They surely condemned the
terrorist attacks in Mumbai. But then, Yang went on to express the hope that
"Pakistan and India could continue to strengthen cooperation, maintain the
Pakistan-India peace process, and to advance bilateral ties in a healthy and
steady way", to quote Xinhua news agency.
Yang said, "These measures are in the fundamental interests of both Pakistan
and India." Curiously, Yang and Qureshi also "pledged joint efforts to push
forward bilateral ties". In essence, Yang has voiced solidarity with Pakistan
and counseled restraint on the part of India. It is unclear whether Washington
prompted Beijing to use its good offices to calm the troubled waters or Beijing
wished to underscore its relevance to South Asian security.
One thing is clear, though. As the death toll in Mumbai continues to steadily
climb and is about to cross 200 innocent lives, India is overwhelmed by waves
of sorrow and anger. The government in Delhi has been shaken to its very
foundations by the public outrage that has erupted at the colossal failure of
political leadership. The ruling party, Congress, which is the grand old party
that led India's freedom struggle, faces an existential threat to its future
standing on the chessboard of India's national politics.
Senior politicians of all shades sat huddled in the prime minister's residence
for hours altogether until midnight Sunday, figuring out how to face the
daylight and a public which is fast losing faith in them and their shenanigans.
The interior minister has been forced by an irate Congress party leadership to
resign, owning responsibility for the massive failure to prevent the fidayeen
from storming India's financial capital with such impunity. Curiously,
intelligence wasn't altogether lacking that precisely such an attack from the
Arabian Sea needed to be anticipated.
But the public is not impressed that the dapper minister's head has rolled. The
wounds on the Indian psyche cut deep. And there is a growing possibility that
the public anger may result in a wild swing in the popular mood toward
right-wing nationalist politics in the ongoing provincial assembly elections
and the fast-approaching parliamentary elections.
The government is pointing its finger at Pakistan as the base from where the fidayeen
staged their carefully planned attack. The popular perception in India is that
there had to be some very substantial degree of involvement by elements within
the Pakistani establishment for such a massive, meticulously choreographed
operation with detailed logistical back-up to be staged.
The government is having a hard time maintaining its formal position, which
distinguishes terrorist groups based in Pakistan that would have carried out
the attack and the Pakistani government as such. The public opinion doesn't buy
the subtle distinction, but the government has little choice in the matter.
Indeed, the Indian establishment seems to lack conviction in what it is saying
by way of absolving the Pakistani security agencies of any hand in perpetrating
the terrorist attack. The alternative for the government would be tantamount to
calling the attack by its name - an act of war - on the part of the Pakistani
establishment, given its massive scale. But that will oblige India to respond
to the perceived aggression militarily, which of course is unthinkable as a
nuclear flashpoint is reachable within no time.
The point is, the India-Pakistan adversarial relationship with its
undercurrents of mutual suspicion and bristling with countless animosities
bordering on hostility, is so delicately poised at any given moment that it
doesn't need more than a few hours to degenerate into a conflict situation on
account of a misstep or two on either side, even when it is camouflaged in
veneers of cordiality as it has been during the past three to four years.
Islamabad, of course, stubbornly rejects all imputations of involvement in the
terrorist attack. Under direct pressure from the United States, Islamabad
hurriedly accepted the idea that Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, director
general of the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) Pakistan's premier intelligence
service, would visit India to discuss the issue. But this decision, emanating
out of a telephone conversation between Rice and Pakistan's President Asif Ali
Zardari, seemed to have been a shrewd attempt to finesse the mounting Indian
anger. It has since been watered down by the Pakistani military. Evidently,
Pakistani army chief General Pervez Kiani, who previously headed the ISI,
concluded it might sap the morale for the military to be seen wobbling under
Reflexes are hardening on both sides. In the domestic political environment in
India with impending national elections, it is politically suicidal for the
government to be seen helpless in even coaxing Islamabad into a meaningful
exchange. While the Indian left parties have set aside their recent acrimonious
differences with the government and called for "national unity", right-wing
politicians do not feel the impetus to do so when they sense the chances of
their being catapulted into power on a nationalistic wave of popular outrage.
Meanwhile, Delhi turns toward Washington for more help. And, anticipating
further US pressure, the Pakistani military has begun holding out veiled
threats that unless Washington and Delhi backed off, all bets are off on its
participation in the "war on terror" in Afghanistan. This may put Washington in
some quandary - and explain Rice's hurried trip to the region.
The Pakistani military knows only too well that once the "Afghanistan factor"
is brought into play, the calculus changes completely. With an estimated 32,000
US troops already on the field and a prospective force of more than 20,000
combat and support troops possibly on their way on the request of commanders in
Afghanistan, it becomes a high stakes game for Washington.
From Washington's perspective, the crisis erupts at an awkward time, with
various departments and agencies of the US administration engaged in devising a
fresh strategy towards the war in Afghanistan - White House coordinator for
Iraq and Afghanistan General Douglas Lute; CENTCOM commander General Petraeus;
chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen; the State Department and
the Central Intelligence Agency are yet to complete their assignment.
The Afghan factor cuts into US interests in different ways. First, in the event
of an escalation of India-Pakistan tensions in the coming days and weeks, the
US should anticipate a Pakistani decision to divert its crack divisions from
the Afghan border regions, roughly totaling 100,000 troops, to its western
border with India. Almost immediately, the impact will be felt on the dynamics
of the war in Afghanistan.
In a recent speech in Washington, General David McKiernen, supreme commander of
the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan, had
underscored how important it was that Pakistani military stayed the course in
Afghanistan. He said Kiani was shortly expected in Kabul and "we've started
from talking to each other to today we coordinate tactical-level cooperation
along the border".
McKiernen added he saw a "shift in thinking at the senior levels in Pakistan
that this insurgency is a problem that threatens the very existence of
Pakistan, and that they have to deal with it perhaps in ways that they didnít
contemplate a few years ago on their side of the border. So I see a willingness
and a capacity, although they have a long way to go to conduct
counterinsurgency operations on the Pak side of the border".
He expressed "cautious optimism" about the war, taking into account the
Pakistani military's willingness to cooperate. McKiernen's worst fear now will
be that the Pakistani military leadership may be about to plead it has the will
to fight the al-Qaeda and the Taliban but lacks the capacity and resources due
to the urgent requirement of redeployment on the border with India.
A second factor working on the US will be the pressure that all this might put
on the transit facilities for supplying the troops. Roughly 75% of the supplies
for the US troops pass through Pakistan and there are no viable alternate
routes except through Iran for supplying the units deployed in the
insurgency-ridden southern and southeastern regions of Afghanistan. Third,
without Pakistan's support, the Taliban will have a field day in the border
regions. And the casualties for the NATO forces will mount, which will have
serious political implications for the European capitals.
Therefore, Washington's prime task will be to cool tempers and avoid an
eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the two South Asian nuclear
adversaries. It will be the last major foreign policy act for the departing
George W Bush administration and a curious full-dress rehearsal for the
incoming Barack Obama presidency.
The Pakistani interest lies in forcing a mediatory role on the US that
"restrains" India. The Pakistani military feels nervous about the rapidly
expanding US-India strategic partnership and would like Washington to be
even-handed in its South Asia policies. Curiously, the fidayeen attack
on Mumbai forcefully underscores the Pakistani plea that Washington cannot
compartmentalize the Afghan war without addressing the core issues of
But all this overlooks the possibility that the Pakistani military may well
have a grand motive for ratcheting up tensions with India precisely at the
present juncture so as to find an alibi to wriggle out of the commitments to
the "war on terror" in Afghanistan. The point is, the Pakistani military
harbors deep misgivings about the incoming Obama administration's Afghan
policy. Obama has dropped enough hints that he will get tough with the
Pakistani military for its twin-track policy of fighting the war and at the
same time harnessing the Taliban as the charioteer of its geopolitical
influence in Afghanistan.
The current US thinking leans towards equipping select Pashtun tribes to fight
the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It is a controversial move that worries the Pakistani
military, as it might ignite violence in the Pashtun regions inside Pakistan
and fuel the Pashtunistan demand. Besides, Obama has bluntly warned that he
would get the US Special Forces to strike inside the Pakistani territory if the
security situation warranted. Such moves will be seen by the Pakistani military
as a humiliating slap on its face.
What is more disconcerting for the Pakistani military is the likelihood that
Obama's "exit strategy" will emphasize the rapid build-up of a 134,000-strong
Afghan national army. This has been a favorite idea of US Defense Secretary
Robert Gates and it may largely explain Obama's decision to keep him at his
However, the law of diminishing returns begins to work for the Pakistani
military once an Afghan national army gains traction. Indeed, an Afghan army
will, most certainly, be led by ethnic Tajik officers. At present, Tajiks
constitute over three-quarters of the Afghan army's officer corps. But Tajiks
have been entirely out of the pale of Pakistani influence - even during the
Afghan jihad in the 1980s. Tajik nationalism challenges Pakistani aspirations
to control Afghanistan. Summing up these dilemmas facing the Pakistani
military, former Pakistani foreign secretary Najmuddin Sheikh recently pointed
out, "It [Obama's Afghan policy] would in fact be the realization of Pakistan's
worst security fears."
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.