Page 2 of 2 NATO weaves South Asian web
By M K Bhadrakumar
Contacts with NATO at the level of the Indian military establishment have been
unobtrusive but have also become a regular affair. NATO delegations have been
regularly interacting with Indian think tanks and the defense and foreign
policy establishment in Delhi. Unsurprisingly, much of this interaction remains
sequestered from public view even as the Indian establishment continues to
mouth for public consumption its traditional aversion toward military alliances
Top Indian officials have crafted a new idiom calling for an "inclusive"
security architecture for South Asia, a firm wedge leaving the door open for
the inclusion of the extra-regional entities such as the US and/or NATO at some
point. India probably
perceives such "inclusiveness" as useful and necessary to balance China's
rapidly growing profile in the South Asian region.
Most certainly, India harbors the hope that a NATO presence in Afghanistan for
the foreseeable future may not be a bad thing to happen, after all. Delhi
regards NATO's continued participation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflicts to
be a bulwark against the possibility of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
Also, it is useful for India that the Western alliance continues to be seized
of the paradigm (from the Indian perspective) that the core issue of regional
security in South Asia is the Pakistani military's policy of using the Taliban
militants to gain "strategic depth" and of conceiving terrorism as an
instrument of state policy.
India is acutely conscious that the US sensitivities regarding its interests
are at odds with NATO forces' pressing need to elicit a full and genuine
political and military support from Pakistan to work out an Afghan settlement
that can withstand the threat of a Taliban takeover in Kabul.
Again, given India's rivalry with China, Delhi watches with unease the US
efforts to engage China in a geopolitical dialogue over Pakistan's long-term
security, although logically, it ought to feel a stake in avoiding a regional
upheaval in Pakistan and ought to welcome a constructive role by China in
helping to stabilize the situation in Pakistan.
In the year ahead, the thing to watch will be any paradigm shift in the
direction of a cooperative NATO outreach toward the Moscow-led Collective
Security Treaty Organization [CSTO]. Russia has been assiduously cultivating a
strand of thinking within the alliance that joint security undertakings with
CSTO could foster and even render optimal NATO's effectiveness on a
So far, the US has remained adamant about not conceding Russia's implicit claim
of a sphere of influence in the post-Soviet space. The CSTO summit meeting on
December 10 points toward Moscow going ahead with the build up of its alliance
also as a global security organization. Moscow seems to have concluded that any
NATO enlistment of CSTO cooperation in the explosive area of the Afghan problem
will be a protracted process, if at all - leave alone formal, direct links.
With India, on the other hand, the US has been promoting interoperability,
discussing the potentials of cooperation in meeting mutually threatening
contingencies and developing genuine strategic cooperation. The massive
induction of US-made weapons systems into the Indian armed forces that can be
expected in the coming period will accelerate these processes, and it is
entirely conceivable that at some point India may overcome its lingering
suspicions regarding Western domination and establish formal links with NATO
with a modest first step of forming a joint council.
This train of thinking in Delhi will be significantly influenced by any
pronounced eastward shift in NATO's center of gravity toward the Asia-Pacific
region involving the East Asian powers, especially China.
The conviction in New Delhi is that NATO interests in Afghanistan and Pakistani
(military) objectives are ultimately irreconcilable and sooner rather than
later the US will have to address the contradiction. India could be
underestimating the criticality of Pakistan's role in the US regional strategy.
The fact remains that geography dictates that Pakistan will always play a major
role in ensuring the stability of Afghanistan. Arguably, India can be kept out
of conflict resolution in Afghanistan, but Pakistan cannot be. Even countries
that are friendly toward India - Russia, Turkey, Iran, Tajikistan - find it
expedient to work with Pakistan. And towards that end, they are willing to
acquiesce with Islamabad's "precondition" of keeping India at arm's length.
In fact, India doesn't figure in a single regional format involved in the
search for a political settlement in Afghanistan. Its involvement almost
entirely devolves upon its cogitations with the US.
There are any number of reasons why Pakistan's centrality in any search for
conflict resolution in Afghanistan needs to be acknowledged. Afghanistan's
subsistence economy cannot even survive today without trade and transit
provided by Pakistan.
The Afghan political elites, especially the Pashtun elites, view Pakistan as
their single most important interlocutor. They may seek out India as a
"balancer" when the Pakistani intrusiveness or belligerence becomes too much
for them, but ultimately, they have to have dealings with Pakistan.
Again, the Afghan insurgency is Pashtun-driven and the tribal kinships across
the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are historical. Close to three million Afghan
(Pashtun) refugees live in Pakistan. Pakistan wields decisive influence over a
range of Afghan insurgent groups - Quetta Shura, Haqqani network, Hezb-i-Islami
- and maintain extensive contacts with even groups that previously belonged to
the Northern Alliance and spearheaded the anti-Taliban resistance, in
particular, the "Mujahideen" leaders who fought the Soviet occupation such as
Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Rasul Sayyaf, and others.
Needless to say, the terrorist nexus operating in the region includes Pakistani
groups, and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence continues to patronize
some of them - and increasingly Pakistan is prepared to admit openly that they
are its "strategic assets" inside Afghanistan to safeguard its long-term
interests. Pakistan has invested heavily in men and material during the past
two decades to gain "strategic depth" in Afghanistan and appears today to be
every bit determined to influence any Afghan settlement.
Over and above, NATO and the US heavily depends on the two routes through
Pakistan - via North-West Frontier province and Baluchistan - to supply the
troops in Afghanistan.
The WikiLeaks disclosures have shown that the relationship between Pakistan and
the US has been extremely complex. On the one hand, the US wields enormous
influence on the Pakistani elites and the US diplomats blatantly interfere in
Pakistan's domestic affairs - and the Pakistani politicians unabashedly seek
American support for their shenanigans. But on the other hand, everything
points to the limit of American power in Islamabad.
Pakistan surely has an uncanny knack to hunker down and even defy the US when
it comes to safeguarding its core concerns and vital interests. Having said
that, while Pakistan may behave in a exasperating way - full of doublespeak and
double dealings - and at times shows signs of "strategic defiance", Pakistan
also is extremely pragmatic and is finely tuned into the US's critical needs at
the operational level, as the policy on the US drone attacks in the tribal
WikiLeaks singles out two instances at least during the past year when the
Pakistani military actually allowed the US forces to conduct operations inside
Pakistan, completely disregarding the vehement "anti-Americanism" sweeping the
country and quite contrary to its vehement public stance against any such
erosion of Pakistani sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The heart of the matter is that both Pakistan and the US are under strong
compulsion to reconcile their divergent approaches and work toward an Afghan
settlement. The main sticking point at the moment devolves upon the strategy
currently pursued by US commander David Petraeus who hopes to degrade the
insurgents so that the Americans can eventually talk with the Taliban
leadership from a position of strength.
Pakistan has the upper hand here since time is in its favor. Therefore, the
likelihood of the US-Pakistani discords reaching a flashpoint in any given
situation simply doesn't arise.
A finished product of Afghan war
This geopolitical reality is very much linked to NATO's future role in
Afghanistan. US strategy toward an Afghan settlement visualizes the future role
for NATO as the provider of security to the Silk Road that transports the
multi-trillion dollar mineral wealth in Central Asia to the world market via
the Pakistani port of Gwadar. In short, Pakistan is a key partner for NATO in
this Silk Road project.
The Afghan-Pakistan trade and transit agreement concluded in October was a
historic milestone and was possible only because of Washington's sense of
urgency. It stands out as the late Richard Holbrooke's fine legacy. Actually,
Holbrooke, the US diplomacy point man in the region, sought and obtained
India's tacit cooperation in these negotiations leading to the Afghan-Pakistan
agreement, which shows the extent to which Delhi is also counting on Washington
to smoothen the edges of the Afghan-Pakistan-India triangular equations
regarding trade and transit issues.
Without doubt, Pakistan is assured of a key role in the US regional strategy,
which will keep foreign money flowing into Pakistan's economy. The Pakistani
military will willingly accelerate the existing partnership programs with NATO
and even upgrade them. The resuscitation of the Silk Road project to construct
an oil and gas pipeline connecting Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and
India (the TAPI pipeline) will need to be seen as much more than a template of
The pipeline signifies a breakthrough in the longstanding Western efforts to
access the fabulous mineral wealth of the Caspian and Central Asian region.
Washington has been the patron saint of the TAPI concept since the early-1990s
when the Taliban was conceived as its Afghan charioteer. The concept became
moribund when the Taliban regime was driven out of power from Kabul.
Now the wheel has come full circle with the project's incremental resuscitation
since 2005, running parallel with the Taliban's fantastic return to the Afghan
chessboard. TAPI's proposed commissioning coincides with the 2014 timeline for
ending the NATO "combat mission" in Afghanistan. The US "surge" is
concentrating on Helmand and Kandahar provinces through which the TAPI pipeline
will eventually run. What an amazing string of coincidences!
The NATO Strategic Concept adopted in the Washington summit in April 1999 has
outlined that disruption of vital resources could impact on the alliance's
security interests. Since then, NATO has been deliberating on its role in
energy security, clarifying its role in the light of shifting global political
and strategic realities.
The Bucharest summit of the alliance in April 2008 deliberated on a report
titled "NATO's Role in Energy Security", which identified the guiding
principles as well as options and recommendations for further activities. The
report specifically identified five areas where NATO can play a role. These
included: information and intelligence fusion and sharing; projecting
stability; advancing international and regional cooperation; supporting
consequence management; and supporting the protection of critical
The alliance already conducts projects focusing on the Southern Caucasus and
Turkey - the Baku-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline and the Baku-Erzurum natural gas
pipeline. In August this year, a new division was created within NATO's
International Staff to exclusively handle "non-traditional risks and
challenges", including energy security, terrorism, and such.
On the map, the TAPI pipeline deceptively shows India as its final destination.
What is overlooked, however, is that the route can be easily extended to the
Pakistani port of Gwadar and connected with European markets, which is the
The onus is on each of the transit countries to secure the pipeline. Part of
the Afghan stretch will be buried underground as a safeguard against attacks
and local communities will be paid to guard it. But then, it goes without
saying that Kabul will expect NATO to provide security cover, which, in turn,
necessitates long-term Western military presence in Afghanistan.
In sum, TAPI is the finished product of the US invasion of Afghanistan. It
consolidates NATO's political and military presence in the strategic high
plateau that overlooks Russia, Iran, India, Pakistan and China. TAPI provides a
perfect setting for the alliance's future projection of military power for
"crisis management" in Central Asia.
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.