Obama's boat to India springs leaks
By M K Bhadrakumar
In the world of diplomacy and politics, a "leak" invariably means something and
its timing is never accidental. The leak is a form of diplomatic ingenuity. Two
leaks in successive weeks, appearing in New York and London in the run-up to
the visit by United States President Barack Obama to India in early November,
raise tricky questions. They threaten to become the leitmotif of Obama's visit.
The thrust of the "original leak" on October 15 in ProPublica, a
Manhattan-based website that specializes in "investigative journalism", can be
summed up as follows:
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation had advance information relating to the
planning of the terrorist strike on
Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166 people but didn't share the details with Indian
The FBI knew as far back as 2005 that David Coleman Headley, an American
national who figures now as a key person in the plot, was an active militant in
the Pakistani terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), had trained
extensively in Pakistani camps and shopped for night-vision goggles and other
equipment, but didn't prosecute him.
A "complicated relationship" existed between American authorities and Headley
stretching over a decade since he began working as an "informant" for the US
Drug Enforcement Administration sometime in the late 1990s.
Headley was probably an American "asset" within the LeT who turned "jihadi" at
The ProPublica leak was followed four days later by an item in Britain's the
Guardian newspaper on October 19, based on a classified report on Indian
officials' interrogation of Headley in June in Chicago. It makes out that:
Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence was "deeply involved" in staging the
Mumbai attacks. "The ISI had no ambiguity in understanding the necessity to
Pakistani military officers were involved in the conspiracy.
Headley received US$25,000 from his "ISI handler" to finance one of his eight
surveillance missions to Mumbai.
Look at the deep irony of it. This was to have been a historic visit to
Gandhi's land by Obama, who professes admiration for the apostle of
non-violence - and the confessions of a terrorist threaten to upstage it.
The two leaks are joined at the hip. The narrative is that: a) The US is
hypocritical while professing to be India's strategic partner; b) The ISI was
involved in the Mumbai terrorist strike but there is nothing anybody can do
about it now.
By a bizarre coincidence, the ''leaks" appeared even as the influential
think-tank the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is wired into
the Washington establishment, released a "non-partisan" report on Monday
co-authored by Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the previous
administration, and Nicholas Burns, formerly undersecretary of state in the
previous and the current administrations, titled "Natural Allies", which
presents an exciting "blueprint" to "rejuvenate" the US-India strategic
partnership and put it on a "more solid foundation".
Consider the following: Washington's painstaking choreography on Obama's visit
reaches its final lap and a hidden hand appears from nowhere to disrupt it. At
the very least, to quote a senior Indian editor: "A miasma of suspicion hangs
over the role of US agencies in failing to prevent the 2008 Mumbai terrorist
attacks," which in turn has "deepened the doubts and raised questions" about
the nature of US-Indian counterterrorism cooperation.
It is anybody's guess whether a hidden hand is indeed at work to derail Obama's
India visit. At any rate, a three-way cat-and-mouse game has begun involving
the US, India and Pakistan.
US officials are in desperate damage-control mode. The point is, now is a
critical time in the US-India partnership. Expectations are high that Obama's
visit will lift the strategic ties out of the trough of inertia of the past
couple of years.
There is talk of easing of restrictions by the US on "dual-use" technology flow
to India, of new vistas of cooperation in space and energy, a multi-billion
dollar arms deal for C-17 military transport aircraft and new business
opportunities in the burgeoning Indian market that hold the potential to
generate tens of thousands of jobs in the US. The Delhi grapevine is that India
has all but decided to award to the US a massive contract for 126 multi-purpose
fighter aircraft - worth anywhere up to $16 billion.
Logic prevails over emotion
Meanwhile, the Indian political establishment has also so far avoided joining
in on making an issue over the leaks. New Delhi is genuinely hoping that Obama
will publicly and explicitly commit the US to working with India in support of
its permanent membership in an enlarged UN Security Council. Thus, in every
way, the Headley story introduces a jarring element, as it only goes to
highlight that the US and India make strange bedfellows.
New Delhi will factor in that the Headley disclosures can ratchet up
India-Pakistan tensions and that the Pakistani military may seize tensions with
India as another alibi for not undertaking operations in North Waziristan. New
Delhi tunes into Obama's AfPak symphony very attentively.
The tough line adopted lately by the US commander in Afghanistan, General David
Petraeus, vis-a-vis Pakistan is making things hot for the military leadership
in Rawalpindi. The US is in no mood to accede to the Pakistani military
leadership's demand to be the key facilitator of any Afghan settlement, and
instead has begun explicitly backing Hamid Karzai's "Afghan-led, Afghan-driven"
Meanwhile, NATO cross-border operations on Pakistani territory infuriate the
Pakistani military. In short, as the New York Times commented: "General
Petraeus seems determined to show progress on achieving American goals in
Afghanistan - both military and political - ahead of a December review of the
war effort ordered by Obama."
The Pakistani military establishment is furious with Petraeus. A highly placed
Pakistani general has been quoted as threatening: "Petraeus has to lower his
goalposts if he wishes to see some semblance of peace in Afghanistan." The
Pakistani military is hoping Obama will ultimately rein in Petraeus and sue for
But, Washington is circling its wagons. In a hard-hitting opinion-piece on
Tuesday titled "Petraeus rewrites the playbook in Afghanistan", influential
Washington Post columnist David Ignatius rubbished the Pakistani military's
orchestrated media campaign to discredit Petraeus. Ignatius wrote:
David Petraeus appears to be making a strategic pivot in Afghanistan. He is
shooting more, increasing special-operations raids and bombings on Taliban
commanders. But he is also talking more - endorsing President Hamid Karzai's
reconciliation talks with Taliban officials and guaranteeing their safety to
and from Kabul as a confidence-building measure.
With Petraeus in the political-military driver's seat, he can steer a process
to push the disparate Taliban groups toward a political settlement. The
diplomatic side of this game depends on Petraeus's ability to pound those who
resist - with devastating firepower. That's why he has been pushing Pakistan so
hard to step up its operations against the Haqqani network, sheltered in the
tribal areas of the northwest, and against the Quetta Shura Taliban fighters,
who operate from Baluchistan in Pakistan's southwest.
the US is also seeking a regional consensus, as was evident at the special
representatives' conference held in Rome this week in which Iran participated
for the first time. This political-military approach aims at progressively
reducing the US dependence on Pakistan.
Quite clearly, the Headley controversy pops up at a critical point in the
Afghan war. Delhi's comfort level with Obama's AfPak policy is rising and the
Pakistani military stands to gain immensely if Headley takes the center stage
in the region's security discourse.
The Indians would be downright stupid to get agitated over the leaks (which
reveal nothing startlingly new) instead of optimizing the outcome of Obama's
visit. As the CNAS report underscores, US interests in a closer security
relationship with India include:
Ensuring a stable Asian and global balance of power.
Protecting and preserving access to the global commons.
Countering terrorism and violent extremism.
Ensuring access to secure global energy resources.
Fostering greater stability, security and economic prosperity in South Asia,
including in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.
But then, in politics, perceptions matter. Indian public perceptions of the US
are going to be of its double standards and its unreliability as a partner. The
leaks also make the Indian intelligence agencies look foolish and inept, and
spooks are an egotistical lot. The Indian leadership will find it next to
impossible to carry them along on a path of "kiss-and-make-up" with Pakistan in
On the other hand, New Delhi can derive satisfaction that Obama's presidential
psyche is coming face-to-face with the monstrous security paradigm that Indians
are fated to live with in day-to-day life. The "leaks" may be succeeding where
Indian demarches haven't. A paradox about good leaks is that like Saddam
Hussein's Scud missiles, those who launch them can never be sure of their
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.