US seeds discord in South Asia in the Afghan endgame

Oct 28, 2011 12:00 AM

by M.K. Bhadrakumar

Two templates in regional politics are seriously debilitating the United States' campaign to bring Pakistan down on its knees in the Afghan endgame. One is that Delhi has distanced itself from the US campaign and pursues an independent policy toward Islamabad.
The second factor frustrating US policies to isolate Pakistan is the South Asian nation's bonhomie with Iran. Pakistan would have been pretty much isolated had there been an acute rivalry with Iran over the Afghan endgame. The current level of cordiality in the relationship enables Islamabad to focus on the rift with the US and even draw encouragement from Tehran.

It's nonsense
A recent statement by the Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna on the US-Pakistan rift underscored that India doesn't see eye-to-eye with the US approach. (See US puts the squeeze on Pakistan, Asia Times, October 22). It was carefully timed to signal to Washington (and Islamabad) that Delhi strongly disfavoured any form of US military action against Pakistan.

There is a string of evidence to suggest that the Pakistani leadership appreciates the Indian stance. The general headquarters in Rawalpindi acted swiftly to return to India within hours a helicopter with three senior military officers on board which strayed into Pakistani territory in bad weather in the highly sensitive Siachen sector.

The official spokesman in Delhi went on record to convey India's appreciation of the Pakistani gesture. Such conciliatory gestures are rare (for both sides) in the chronicle of Pakistan-India relationship.
Again, earlier, India voted for Pakistan's candidacy for the Asia-Pacific slot among the non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council and the Pakistani ambassador promptly responded that he would work with his Indian counterpart in New York. Ironically, the UN has been a theatre for India and Pakistan's frequent clashes over the Kashmir problem.

Washington would have been quick to insist that it acted as "facilitator" in fostering the improving climate in India-Pakistan relations. But the US is instead watching with a degree of discomfort that its complicated South Asian symphony is throwing up jarring notes. Calibrating India-Pakistan tensions traditionally constituted a key element of the US's regional diplomacy.
Washington has "retaliated" to Krishna's statement by issuing a travel advisory cautioning American nationals from visiting India because of heightened terrorist threats. Delhi, in turn, ticked off Washington saying it considered the US move "disproportionate" -- a cute way of saying that the advisory is a load of nonsense.

Jundallah in retreat
What is happening in Pakistan-Iran relations is even more galling for the US. There has been a spate of high-level visits between Islamabad and Tehran and the two capitals have reached mutual understandings on a range of security interests. Earlier, Tehran acknowledged that there had not been a single attack by the terrorist group Jundallah from the Pakistani side of the border in the Balochistan region during the past 10 months.
Tehran has accused the US of masterminding the Jundallah terrorists to stage covert operations to destabilize Iran. However, since the detention of Central Intelligence Agency operative Raymond Davis in Lahore in January, Islamabad has clamped down on hundreds of US intelligence operatives functioning on Pakistani soil, seriously cramping the US's capacity to dispatch Jundallah terrorists into Iran.

Tehran is satisfied that the Pakistani security establishment is finally acting purposively to smash the US-backed Jundallah network. It reciprocates Pakistan's goodwill by trying to harmonize its Afghan policy and scrupulously avoided pointing fingers at Pakistan for the assassination of Afghan Peace Council head Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was closely allied with Tehran.
Essentially, Iran appreciates that Pakistan's "strategic defiance" of the US will be in the interest of regional stability, the bottom line being that Tehran is keen to force the American troops to leave the region.

Tehran succeeded in the pursuit of a similar objective in Iraq by prevailing on Shi'ite political elites in Baghdad not to accede to the desperate pleas by the US to allow US troops to continue even after the stipulated deadline of withdrawal in December 2011 under the Status of Forces agreement. But Afghanistan is a different kettle of fish and a common strategy with Pakistan will help.
Pakistan keeps an ambivalent stance on the issue of a long-term US military presence in Afghanistan, but it can count on the Taliban to robustly oppose the US plans apropos military bases. Unsurprisingly, Tehran purses a multi-pronged approach toward the Taliban.

Concerted effort
In sum, the overall regional scenario is becoming rather unfavourable to the US. The easing of tensions in Pakistan's relations with India and Iran undermine US strategy to get embedded in the region.
The US's travel advisory was intended to raise hackles in India about the imminent possibility of Pakistan-supported terrorist activities. Again, US-sponsored disinformation is reappearing with claims that China and Pakistan are conspiring against India by setting Chinese military bases in the northern areas of Pakistan, which form part of Kashmir.

This is coinciding with a distinct improvement in the security situation in the Kashmir Valley, to the point that chief minister Omar Abdullah openly advocated earlier in Srinagar that decades-old emergency regulations should be progressively withdrawn and that Delhi should initiate a serious engagement of Pakistan to settle the Kashmir problem.
United States-backed propaganda about the prospect of Chinese military bases in the Pakistani part of Kashmir is intended to serve a dual purpose: namely, creating discord between Pakistan and India and in Sino-Indian relations, too.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a significant statement earlier that he was "convinced" that the Chinese leadership wanted a peaceful resolution of all problems between India and China, including the long-running border dispute. Significantly, he expressed his "sincere hope [that] it is possible for us to find ways and means by which the two neighbours can live in peace and amity despite the persistence of the border problem".
Manmohan's remarks assumed significance since the two countries are to shortly hold the 15th round of talks on the border issue in New Delhi. In a meaningful move, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded to Manmohan's political overture. Beijing said China was "ready to work with India to enhance the China-India strategic partnership".

The statement said:
As important neighbours to each other, China and India have maintained sound momentum in the bilateral relationship. As for the border issue left over from history, the two sides have been seeking a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution through friendly consultations. Pending a final solution, the two sides are committed to maintaining peace and tranquillity in border areas.

A season for propaganda
The speculative, unattributed -- and unverifiable -- reports regarding Chinese intentions to establish military bases in the upper reaches of the Kashmir region under Pakistani control are surging again at a formative point in regional security.
Their laboured thesis is that Delhi should be extremely wary about the "devious" intentions of China and Pakistan and should go slow on the normalization of relations with these "treacherous" neighbours.

Curiously, Delhi is also being bombarded at the same time with US propaganda that Washington is striking a "grand bargain" with Pakistan over the Afghan problem whereby there will be a mutual accommodation of each other's concerns, which may include US intervention to mediate the Kashmir problem and US pressure on Delhi to roll back its presence in Afghanistan.
In a motivated commentary in Foreign Policy magazine earlier on the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Islamabad, two prominent US think-tankers wired to the Washington establishment actually tried to alternatively bait Islamabad and frighten Delhi by putting on the table the ingredients of the "grand bargain". Truly, this is all turning out to be a season for propaganda.

The heart of the matter is that the US is desperate to clinch a strategic agreement with the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul that would allow the establishment of a long-term American military presence in Afghanistan.
Hundreds of Afghans demonstrated in Kabul against US bases. The same day, the lower house of the Afghan parliament rejected terms guiding the operations of the Afghan government's existing agreement with the International Security Assistance Force as violating the country's sovereignty. The mood in the Afghan parliament seems hostile.

Karzai is convening a loya jirga (grand council) to seek endorsement for the US-Afghan pact. Matters will come to a head when it meets. Karzai promises that the US-Afghan pact will be sent to parliament for approval after being discussed in the jirga. Washington insists that the jirga approves the draft pact before the Bonn II conference convenes in December. Karzai's political future depends on whether he can deliver on the pact.
All sitting parliamentarians, some former members, one-third of the provincial council members, representatives of civil society and distinguished people, religious scholars and influential tribal leaders have been invited to the jirga. Two hundred and thirty representatives of Afghan refugee communities in Pakistan, Iran and Western countries will also be in attendance in the 2,030-strong jirga.

On September 13, Afghan National Security Advisor Dadfar Spanta told Afghan parliamentarians that the US might set up military bases in Afghanistan after the signing of the pact, but that the pact wouldn't be inked unless approved by parliament. Spanta added, "Concerns of our neighbours [over the US-Afghan pact] are genuine, but we will not allow our soil to be used against them."
The Afghan parliament fears, however, that Karzai might choose to bypass it after extracting endorsement from a pliant jirga and interpreting that as the collective opinion of the Afghan nation. Parliament directed the speaker to address an official communication to Karzai highlighting its constitutional prerogative to approve foreign policy issues.

The Afghan endgame is moving into a crucial phase; much will depend on regional politics. The worst-case scenario for the US is that subsuming the contradictions in the intra-regional relationships between and among Pakistan, Iran, India and China, these countries might have a convergent opinion on the issue of American military bases.
An accentuation of these contradictions, therefore, would serve the US's geopolitical interests at the present juncture, hence the US's "divide-and-rule" strategy.

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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