Page 1 of 2 South Asia descends into terror's vortex
By M K Bhadrakumar
South Asians will watch the year end in a pall of gloom. The region is fast
getting sucked into the vortex of terrorism. The Afghan war has crossed the
Khyber and is stealthily advancing towards the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains.
Whatever hopes might have lingered that Barack Obama would be a harbinger of
"change", have also been dashed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The
Financial Times of London reported on Monday that in an exclusive interview
Rice prophesied that the incoming Obama administration might have little option
but to follow the current US approach on a range of foreign policy
issues. Significantly, her prognosis figured in the course of a foreign policy
review that primarily focused on Russia, Iran and Afghanistan.
South Asian security is at a crossroads. On the one hand, the United States
made great strides in getting embedded in the region on a long-term footing.
South Asia must figure as a rare exception in the George W Bush era's dismal
foreign policy legacy. On other hand, the big pawn on the South Asian
chessboard, India, is heading for parliamentary elections. Almost certainly, a
new government with new thinking will assume office in Delhi by May. US-India
ties will also come under scrutiny.
Hype of US-India ties
The Bush administration made the Indian leadership feel "special". The Indian
establishment felt comfortable with the US's regional policy, which it fancied
as working in favor of its aspirations to emerge as the pre-eminent power in
the Indian Ocean region. Delhi had no problems with the creeping
"militarization" of the Bush administration's regional policy; more precisely,
the Pentagon's "muscling" or ''encroachment" into a striking number of aspects
of the US government, including its foreign policy, as Thomas A Schweich,
former senior State Department official with hands-on experience on
Afghanistan, put it in a devastating article last Sunday in the Washington Post
What mattered to Delhi was that the US regional policy regarded India as a
counterweight to China. Equally, Delhi was not perturbed that the cold warriors
in Washington were relentlessly pursuing a policy of encirclement of its
traditional ally Russia or pressing for a regime change in Iran, India's close
friend. In fact, Delhi cut adrift from the regional politics and
single-mindedly focused on its strategic partnership with the US, which, it
felt, if carefully nurtured, would take care of India's two main challenges on
the foreign policy front, namely, its adversarial relationships with China and
Pakistan, and elevate India altogether from the morass of its regional milieu.
The US-India nuclear agreement signed in September, the burgeoning
military-to-military cooperation, the prospect of "inter-operability" between
the two armed forces - all this elevated US-India ties to the level of a
Delhi took in its stride the status of a key "non-NATO ally" that the US
regional policy ascribed to India's arch-rival Pakistan - comfortable in the
estimation that the Pakistani connection after all was a passing need of the US
in the context of the Afghan war, whereas India was the US's "natural ally".
Meanwhile, Delhi systematically began harmonizing its own regional policies
with the US's strategy, especially with regard to rolling back its cooperation
with Iran while boosting security ties with Israel, distancing itself from the
trilateral format involving Russia, China and India, and reducing to a minimum
its involvement with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
India signed up with a "quadrilateral alliance" involving the US, Japan,
Australia and India in a bizarre containment strategy toward China, which, of
course, annoyed Beijing. Some in the Indian strategic community openly
threatened to play a "Tibet card" against China, confident in the strength of
the US-India strategic partnership. Hubris crept into the Indian mindset, which
was indeed a startling sight, altogether new to the millennia-old largely
benign Indian civilizational temper.
The Indian leadership paid heed to US and Israeli opposition to the
Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline project despite its immense significance for
India's energy security, besides holding the potential of realizing a long-lost
dream of making Pakistan a real "stakeholder" in good-neighborly relations. In
a dramatic illustration of how much Delhi's policies shifted, the Indian
security czars took the visiting Israeli army chief in September to the Indian
state of Jammu and Kashmir, almost signaling that India was joining hands with
the US-Israeli fight against "Islamic terror".
It was a calibrated act of strategic defiance, extraordinary for Delhi's
traditionally cautious West Asia policy or power projection in the Arab world.
Delhi was showing its thumb's up at the Muslim opinion regarding the US-led war
against "Islamic terror". It didn't seem to care how much antagonism was
building up against the US's war on Islamic terror or against Israel's state
terrorism within Pakistan and in the neighboring regions of the Muslim Middle
Israel's influence on the Indian foreign and security establishment peaked.
Most important, Delhi overlooked all pressing evidence that the US-led war in
Afghanistan was closely linked to the containment strategy towards Russia and
Iran (and China) and the eastward advance of the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) into the Asian theater.
In February, when visiting US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested an
Indian military deployment in Afghanistan, it was received with careful
attention and empathy. Some Indian analysts argued that this was actually a
good thing as it would inevitably lead to the US and India joining hands to
cleanse Pakistan's body polity of its Islamic fervor and make it a truly
civilized, democratic country.
Indian illusions shaken up
Then the terrorists struck on the western Indian city of Mumbai, India's
financial capital, on November 26. The horrific violence came as a chilling
reminder to Delhi that the more things seemed to change in the power
equilibrium in South Asia, they have remained much the same as they were
through past decades. India quickly sobered up to the realization that its
security is ultimately defined by its neighborhood and there is no running away
from the hard realities of life.
The past four-week period has also shaken up Indian illusions regarding
Washington's regional policies. It is plain to see that the US never really
abandoned its "hyphenated" policy towards India and Pakistan as South Asia's
two important rival powers, both of which are useful in their own ways for the
pursuit of the US's geostrategies.
Within hours of the Mumbai attacks, Rice rushed to Delhi to commiserate. She
promised quick action to bring the terror machine to book. She urged Delhi to
exercise restraint while she worked on the Pakistani leadership to cooperate
with India. She then flew to Pakistan. Two other top US officials followed up
Rice's mission in the following weeks. Delhi waited patiently though evidence
began to pile by the hour that the terrorists had set out from Pakistani soil
in a well-orchestrated operation of high professional skill that would have
been possible only with the connivance and support of the security
establishment in Islamabad.
Meanwhile, Pakistan, which is vastly experienced in handling Washington's
"pressure", began ably working on Rice and the US military and political
establishment. By last week, Islamabad seemed to have concluded that the US
pressure had all but run its course. Actually, by gently holding out the threat
to the US that the Afghan operations would grievously suffer unless Washington
restrained Delhi from precipitating any tensions on the India-Pakistan border,
Islamabad seems to have neatly pole-vaulted over Rice to appeal straight to the
Pentagon, where there is abiding camaraderie towards the Pakistani generals.
The Pakistani generals' calculation proved correct when the Pentagon made it
abundantly clear to Delhi that it wouldn't allow the Pakistani generals to be
"distracted" at this juncture. Speaking from Camp Eggers in Afghanistan on
December 20, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff,
laid down the ground rules for India. He said the overarching strategy for
success in Afghanistan must be regional in focus and include not just
Afghanistan, but also Pakistan and India. Continuing in this seemingly
innocuous vein, Mullen explained that the three countries must "figure a way"
to decrease tensions between them and the "regional strategy" here is aimed at
addressing long-term problems that increase instability in the region.
Mullen then referred specifically to Kashmir as a problem where reduction of
tensions "allowed the Pakistani leadership ... to focus on the west [border
with Afghanistan]". He expressed apprehension that the terror attack in Mumbai
might "force the Pak leadership to lose interest in the west", apart from
bringing India and Pakistan closer to a nuclear flashpoint. Curiously, Mullen
gave credit to the Pakistani top brass for cooperation in the Afghan war, which
"has had a positive impact" on the ground.
US hinting at Kashmir mediation
Mullen probably hoped to rattle Delhi by confirming what many American
"experts" have been recently suggesting, namely, the US is working on a
"regional strategy" in South Asia, which grouped Afghanistan, Pakistan and
India together. He virtually corroborated a recent hint by US Senator John
Kerry (who is expected to chair the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign
Relations) that Obama would be appointing a special envoy for South Asia in an
Delhi finds such ideas completely unacceptable. Delhi traditionally rejected
any outside "third-party" mediation in India-Pakistan disputes. Having said
that, successive governments in Delhi tacitly acquiesced with a US mediatory
role in India-Pakistan relations in the recent years since the Kargil conflict
in 1999. To be sure, Delhi's pragmatism was based on the belief that it
wouldn't be a bad idea if the US used its influence on Pakistan to moderate its
policies on the range of issues generating India-Pakistan tensions - Pakistani
support for cross-border militancy and terrorism, in particular. In other
words, Delhi preferred to selectively avail of the US mediatory role in areas
where it stood to gain.
But an institutionalized US mediatory mission in South Asia hyphenating
Afghanistan, Pakistan and India is an altogether different proposition. It not
only linked India and Pakistan but it also held out the danger of constant US
meddling in Indian policies. The intriguing thing is why the US has projected
its "regional strategy" doctrine at this juncture, knowing fully well that
Delhi will find it disagreeable.
One possible explanation is that the US is attempting pressure tactics by
appointing a special envoy to discuss Kashmir. Washington has been strongly
pitching for a fair share of the multi-billion dollar arms deals that are in
the Indian pipeline. A single deal for the procurement of 126 aircraft and
related supplies including co-production alone can be worth anywhere up to
US$16 billion. The Bush administration hoped to clinch the deal before
Gates visited Delhi in February with the arms merchants and unabashedly
canvassed for awarding the contracts through direct negotiations rather than
international tender. But the Indians are sticking to their cumbersome tender
procedures which require the US companies to compete with Russia and France and
other arms manufacturers.
Not only that, Delhi recently overlooked the Pentagon's sales pitch and awarded
a lucrative contract for helicopters to Russia worth $1.3 billion. A leading
pro-American newspaper promptly wrote an editorial condemning the Indian
Indeed, Mullen's statement rings a warning bell for Delhi. But then, a
difficult choice lies ahead for Obama. Will he rake up the Kashmir issue as a
pressure tactic? It is certain that Delhi will reject any US attempt to mediate
on Kashmir. An extraordinarily high voter turnout in the current election to
the provincial legislature in Srinagar vindicates Delhi's stand that there is
no need or scope for any outside intervention in the Kashmir issue.
Defying all doomsday predictions and despite the prevailing impression of
widespread political alienation among Kashmiris, the voters in the state have
affirmed an extraordinary faith in India's democratic process. The voter
turnout touched as high as 60% in the election, which has been held in a
atmosphere free of violence and coercion. Therefore, Delhi will see no reason
to give in to any third party mediation.