As the prospective American action in Afghanistan draws nearer, Indian policymakers will be tracking a scenario in intense flux to see how New Delhi's interests and Washington's new-found mission can be made to converge without first clashing. President George W. Bush's address to the Senate on Thursday made it obvious that the current US approach to South Asia is at best narrowly defined. Its first priority is to get Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda leadership. If the Taliban doesn't cooperate, then they would be singed by American action—call it collateral damage of a different sort.
India's concerns on terrorism, only part of which emanates from Afghanistan, are nearer home, mainly in Pakistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. It is unclear how systematic the Afghanistan operation will be, in terms of wiping out what officials call "the systems that support terrorism". At best, the impending military action in Afghanistan will degrade only some of the structures that export terror to India.
As one diplomat says, "What we will see—and we will see it on TV—is a Hollywood-style resolution on the lines of Rambo. How much of it will be a real-life, long-term solution is not at all clear." Another diplomat points to the problem of evolving a global standard on terrorism. "If you are building an international coalition, you have to stand up to it whether it is happening in America or Antarctica. That's where the contradictions will come in. America is on either side of this issue in various conflicts around the world."
The expectation is that the Afghanistan operation will have two distinct phases. In the first phase, the focus will almost be exclusively on bin Laden and his group. Assuming that the first phase concludes exactly as the US and Pakistan want it to conclude, will the US then ask Pakistan to clean up its act as well? The contours of this phase are fuzzy. The challenge is to bring about a measure of stability to Afghanistan. Will Washington view sections of the Taliban as part of the future solution to Afghanistan? Will cooperation between Washington and Islamabad leave New Delhi out in the cold?
American think-tankers are in little doubt about the facts. Robert Hathaway, director, Asia programme, Woodrow Wilson Center, told Outlook: "Let us be clear about how each views this apparent commonality of purposes. If Indians take the developments of the past week as a sign that Washington has at last signed on to New Delhi's agenda regarding cross-border terrorism, they are likely to be disappointed. To the contrary, there is a new feeling in Washington today that the US needs a cooperative Pakistan in order to achieve US objectives. Rather than joining forces with India in an anti-Pakistan grouping, no matter how informal, the Bush administration is likely over the coming weeks to try to recreate something of the partnership that marked US-Pakistani relations nearly two decades ago. India should not view this as a threat, let alone a betrayal. India is certain to remain the preferred partner for most Americans. But Washington will have little interest in an exclusive relationship with New Delhi that bars meaningful cooperation with Islamabad."
Initially, media reports said that India was offering various kinds of cooperation in the war against bin Laden. One official bluntly says, "This is a race which we don't qualify to run. Pakistan has both geography and history on its side. For (Gen Pervez) Musharraf, this is crucial.He is playing for high stakes. It is this or nothing for him. What we have to see is if Musharraf comes out of this one smelling of roses, will he be able to get any political mileage on his primary area of concern, Kashmir?"
Dennis Kux, a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, says, "It is a new world after the horrible events of September 11 but it remains too soon to be seen how this will finally play out in terms of US relations with South Asia. The fact that India spoke up promptly and unequivocally in support of the US response will doubtless further strengthen US-India relations. The US has already made clear that Pakistan must either back the US effort vis-a-vis bin Laden, and presumably the Taliban, or pay the consequences. Kashmir is not directly involved."
Government officials say that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and uncertain about the nature of retaliation, Pakistani army commanders advised various militants in launching camps along the LoC to disperse. Officials expecting a slide in militant activity in Kashmir feel the government should seize the opportunity and unveil a new political initiative there.
Anupam Srivastava, director, India Initiative, University of Georgia, asks, "Can the US continue to turn a blind eye to Pakistan's tacit support to terrorism on its soil, in Kashmir, and beyond? No. As the campaign to root out terrorist cells and their horizontal linkages across the Middle East and West Asia and eastward to Southeast Asia continues, it is inevitable that Pakistan's covert support to such activities will become more visible to the US authorities."
Last week, there was a perception that Pakistan and Afghanistan have been clubbed together. There was also a feeling, widely reported, that finally it is India's battle which the US is joining. As Prof Madhavan Palat of Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University points out, "I don't think it would be right to say that the Americans are joining our war. Not at all. They are fighting their war and we might be joining theirs. If they are indeed going to destroy all the camps in Afghanistan and also transform the Pakistani ones, then we are getting something out of it. But there is no evidence that this is what we are going to get."
But what New Delhi hopes for is that the new Afghan crisis could transform the nature of the Pakistani state. Officials privately point out that Islamabad's cooperation with Washington is not without logic. Musharraf embarked on this course because of his country's economic difficulties, to outflank New Delhi and pre-empt attempts to brand Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, and to maintain its nuclear deterrence. All this is likely to carry a reasonable price tag, which could affect the current power structure in Pakistan, given the already pronounced schism between the liberals and fundamentalists. The fissure between Pakistan and sections of the Taliban will widen. There will be a pressure cooker effect on the already pronounced ethnic divisions in Pakistan. Additional presence of Afghan refugees might have a debilitating effect on Pakistan but it might, to its advantage, seek financial packages from the US to override it.
With the Taliban alienated, and its Islamist ideology dented, Afghan nationalism will receive a boost, which is not in the best strategic interests of Pakistan. How all this will translate into ground reality is still unclear.Says a senior official: "This is the first time that the army which fathered the creature called Taliban is going to take on its own creation. We will now find out whether this creature has a life of its own."
But Indian diplomacy is not without challenges. There is a distinct view in the higher echelons of policymaking that what is unfolding in Afghanistan must not remain just a battle between the US and bin Laden, that if the prospective military action is not preceded by intense preparations then the action will be totally counterproductive, just as the August 1998 bombing of the Afghan wilderness was.
What role can India play in Afghanistan post-Osama? Will New Delhi be able to revive the Delhi-Kabul axis that Pakistan effectively cut off? If there is inadequate engagement with Arab states, then there might arise the danger of implicitly corroborating Huntington's theory of the clash of civilisations which might have a bearing on and within our borders as well.
The US record of dealing with the Taliban also inspires little confidence. In the months after the Taliban took over in 1996, Washington was talking about sending an envoy to Kabul and the American press thought the Taliban was having a "stabilising effect" on Afghanistan. During Clinton's administration, some sanctions were indeed imposed but American policy was primarily focused on persuading/pressuring the Taliban to give up bin Laden. In 1999, Republican representative from California Dana Rohrabacher accused the Clinton administration of covertly backing the Taliban. He said, "My guess is this amoral or immoral policy is based on the assumption that the Taliban would bring stability to Afghanistan and permit the building of oil pipelines from Central Asia, through Afghanistan, to Pakistan." The prospects of sanitising the region for the purpose of achieving energy goals remain attractive.
Says Sumit Ganguly, professor of Asian Studies and Government at the University of Texas, Austin, "The US and India have parallel but not entirely convergent interests in this crisis.... Despite this seeming divergence in concerns and interests, the two sides can actually cooperate to accomplish their respective goals. Isolating the Taliban and bringing the curtain down on these camps is the only sure method of ensuring that terror is not available for export to either East or West."
In the resulting cooperation between US and Pakistan, will the US approach to India change in any way? Srivastava does not think so: "It would be incorrect to conclude that Pakistan's cooperation with the US will be somehow inimical to US-India ties. The latter relationship is developing on certain objective grounds of common interest and will retain their value regardless of Pakistan's behavior in this context. The only, as yet indeterminate, variable in this equation could be what specific conditions Pakistan proposes, and which of those the US chooses to accept. It's hard to visualise any such condition, other than urging the US to play a more assertive role as a mediator in the Kashmir dispute." But the Valley is not something on top of US minds right now.
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