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    South Asia
     Jan 10, 2009
Obama, soccer and South Asian security
By M K Bhadrakumar

The United States could be on the threshold of a big breakthrough in the geopolitics of the South Asian region. A planned visit by Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari to Washington in late January could well turn out to be the tipping point.

The diplomatic tango over the terrorist attacks on the western Indian city of Mumbai on November 27 is entering a crucial phase. In a media interaction on Wednesday, the American ambassador to India, David Mulford, let it be known that India's dossier linking Pakistani nationals with the Mumbai attacks is "credible". New Delhi had handed over the dossier to Islamabad on Monday.

He said, "I think the dossier is credible. A lot of that was prepared


with assistance from the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation]. The US doesn't compile stuff which is not credible." Mulford went on to say that the Mumbai attacks appeared to have been carried out from Pakistan and that an FBI team was en route to Pakistan, which would take the probe forward. Equally, Mulford reacted sharply to the widespread notion that Pakistan holds the US by the jugular vein over the Afghan war. He said, "Americans are very good at skinning the cats."

After having secured New Delhi's assurance that India will not resort to a military strike against Pakistan, Washington is perceptibly stepping up pressure on Islamabad to act on the available evidence regarding the Mumbai attacks. Mulford's tough statement signifies a shifting of gear. So far Islamabad has been on a denial mode, but on Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad publicly acknowledged that the lone terrorist survivor in the Mumbai attacks was after all a Pakistani national. On Thursday, in another statement, the Foreign Ministry affirmed that the Indian dossier is under "serious consideration".

Increasingly, the picture that emerges is that the Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Kiani and Zardari seem to have come on the same page not to resort to strategic defiance of the US. One sign is that opposition leader Nawaz Sharif has switched to an altogether rejectionist stance that New Delhi's dossier regarding Pakistan's involvement in the Mumbai attacks was "insufficient" and there was "plentiful" evidence of Indian covert activities within Pakistan.

Within the complicated political calculus in Islamabad, the nascent Kiani-Zardari proximity also seems to have politically isolated Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani, who hit out on Wednesday by dismissing Pakistan's National Security Advisor retired Major General Mahmood Durrani. Now, Durrani has been acting as a vital bridge between Kiani and Zardari, apart from being Washington's key interlocutor in Islamabad. Curiously, Durrani has also been a passionate advocate of normalization of relations between Pakistan and India.

His sacking may momentarily disorient the US game plan, but it is not a lethal setback. The face-saving formula that is gaining all-round respectability in Islamabad is that "non-state actors" might actually be at work disrupting India-Pakistan relations. The US pronouncements on the Mumbai attacks have carefully differentiated between the terrorists who struck Mumbai and the Pakistani authorities.

Washington is bringing leverage to bear on the Pakistani power structure from many directions. On the one hand, in an important gesture towards Islamabad, the Barack Obama administration is all set to appoint a special envoy to India and Pakistan. The Nelson Report, an influential daily briefing on US policy matters, confirmed this on Monday while reporting that top-ranking US diplomat, Richard Holbrooke, former assistant secretary of state in the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, is being appointed.

The appointment of a US special envoy will be seen by the Pakistani establishment in Islamabad as tantamount to a US mediatory mission on the Kashmir issue, which has been a longstanding demand by Islamabad. In the normal course, Delhi would have instinctively rejected the appointment, but Washington would have assessed that with the newly elected popular government taking over after a successful election in the Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir, New Delhi would feel far more confident about its standing on the Kashmir issue and might not raise dust on Holbrooke's appointment.

Interestingly, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and Central Asia Richard Boucher, when asked on Tuesday whether there is an effort to solve the Kashmir problem, made a highly nuanced response, saying, "There is always hope. But it has been something that they [India and Pakistan] themselves have pursued ... But I think there is an opportunity here to work together against the groups that are trying to disrupt India-Pakistan relations, against the groups that are actually harming the cause of Kashmir by carrying out these horrible terrorist actions. And, hopefully, coming out of that, the two sides will find themselves in a better position to cooperate." Boucher then added that India and Pakistan made "great strides" over the past two years in discussing Kashmir, and the Mumbai attacks made that more difficult right now.

Another factor weighing in Islamabad's calculations is the unprecedented role that China has taken in diffusing the current crisis in India-Pakistan relations. Beijing's influence on Islamabad is second to none. It was very obvious that the mission undertaken by the Chinese special envoy He Yafei to Islamabad on December 29 and to New Delhi on January 5 was with US encouragement. Washington seems to have estimated that Chinese good offices would serve a useful purpose in persuading the Pakistani military to cooperate on the Mumbai attacks. In fact, Kiani received He.

In the normal course, New Delhi would have been lukewarm about Beijing's perceived meddling in South Asia but mindful that this one had Washington's blessings, New Delhi politely welcomed He, treating the visit on low-key while a top Indian official later publicly expressed satisfaction on the consultations. The Indian official said, "What we do see is a strong condemnation from China of terrorism and the Mumbai attacks. On the issue of terrorism, China stands firmly with us ... We have a joint working group on counter-terrorism with China. We will make sure it works." The Indian official revealed that He said India was China's "strategic partner" while Pakistan is a "close friend".

All this apart, Washington has its own considerable leverage on Pakistan. A US$15 billion assistance package for Pakistan is at present under consideration with the US Congress and the US Central Command is finalizing a new military aid program of $300 million annually for Pakistan during the coming five-year period.

Most important, Washington would realize that crunch time has come for US-India strategic partnership. If Pakistan is a basket case, the dynamics of US-India partnership work in a diametrically opposite way. New Delhi handed over an alluring New Year gift to the George W Bush administration with India signing on January 1 its biggest ever arms deal with the US - a $2.1 billion contract for eight Boeing P-81 long-range maritime reconnaissance (LRMR) aircraft for the navy. The contract provides an option for India to order up to eight more such planes. It is a direct commercial agreement with Boeing, dispensing with the usual tendering procedures. The Bush administration had actively canvassed for the deal.

Again, a forthcoming Indian deal for 126 multi-role fighter aircraft alone is estimated to be worth $10 billion. Equally, a 150-member American trade delegation has just arrived in New Delhi. The US-India Business Council is sponsoring this largest-ever trade mission from the US, including over 50 senior commercial nuclear executives representing such US giants as General Electric, Westinghouse, Bechtel Nuclear, the Shaw Group, Babcock & Wilcox, etc. Clearly, the US-India nuclear agreement is being launched for business exploitation. The Confederation of Indian Industry, which is hosting the American businessmen for a three-day meet in New Delhi from Thursday, estimates that 18-20 nuclear plants that India may import over the coming 15-year period could open up investments to the tune of $27 billion.

Evidently, India is opening up as a potentially huge market for the US' military-industrial complex and nuclear industry. That brings up a pertinent question: what is it that Washington could do to ensure that such a US-friendly dispensation continues to rule India even after the parliamentary elections in April-May?

Certainly, Washington could do a lot by influencing the denouement of the present crisis in India's relations with Pakistan in a way that modulates the popular mood in India. A negative perception is growing in the Indian public opinion that the government is merely resorting to vacuous rhetoric but is actually helpless in tackling Islamabad's obduracy with regard to cracking down on the terrorist groups operating against India. It hangs like a Sword of Damocles over the ruling Congress party's electoral prospects.

As a Pakistani commentator put it, "The Indian government has thus been placed in a dilemma. Elections to the Lok Sabha [parliament] are coming up. If it fails to act before that, it will lose face, and perhaps the elections too. And if it acts to initiate military action, it could lead to war, and since war develops its own momentum, it could quickly get out of control. They have a decision to make, and quickly too, before time overtakes them."

Therefore, Washington needs to carefully weigh its options. The defeat of the Congress in the forthcoming elections will no doubt constitute a major setback to US regional strategies in South Asia. Indeed, if Washington could somehow persuade Islamabad to hand over to Indian hands even one or two of the 20 terrorist suspects New Delhi wants, Indian public opinion would see it as a huge success of the government, and the credit will go to the Congress party - especially someone like Masood Azhar, whom the then Indian government surrendered under humiliating circumstances as ransom during the hijacking of an Indian aircraft eight years ago to Kandahar in Afghanistan.

Holbrooke will then have a historic opening as well to work on putting the India-Pakistan relations on a predictable footing. Never before has Washington found itself in such a conundrum. It finds itself in the enviable position to swing the outcome of an Indian election and even decisively mould the future ruling dispensation in New Delhi, apart from holding a virtual carte blanche to work on the flawed India-Pakistan relationship from the angle of the US's regional strategies.

The US influence in South Asia has never before been as paramount. But there is a caveat. The US must first get Islamabad to bend, and by the idiom of soccer, must bend it like English star David Beckham, who scores from free kicks by making the ball "bend" or swerve as it flies through the air. Can Obama pull it off when he receives Zardari? A long time ago, on the back streets of Jakarta, he used to play soccer.

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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