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     Dec 23, 2010

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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 and blocs.

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 trans-regional basis.

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.

Reassuring Pakistan
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 areas testify.

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 regional cooperation.

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 infrastructure.

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 ultimate objective.

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.

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