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Bending backwards

March 22, 2010

Indian leadership sat up in disbelief. There is consternation all around in the media and the bureaucracy. The David Coleman Headley case has not even left the headlines when this quake like disclosure comes right on its heels. It is the fact that the US is offering Pakistan a Civilian Nuclear Deal on the lines of the deal that was sealed sometime back with India. The Indo-US deal has not been concluded after all these years and this more than anything else shows the complex nature of any such negotiations.

The headline in today’s Times of India reads that the US is opening the door for a nuclear deal to ‘mollify’ Pakistan! Pray what has irked Islamabad so that the US needs to ‘mollify’ Pakistan? Earlier Pakistan had stated that they had done enough and that it was for the US to deliver!! Again, what has Pakistan done so dramatic for the west that the US now needs to deliver. I agree that Pakistan has captured some of the Taliban leadership, but that is not quite so exceptional that Washington should do as Islamabad says. Besides those that have been ‘captured’ have yet to be handed over to the west. Pakistan is playing broker between the Taliban leadership and the west, and that includes the leaders of the Quetta shura. Have they opened a front against the Taliban on their side of the border? The answer is a resounding no. They have even suggested that NATO should man the 900 odd check points on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. That they cannot do that on their own and that the west must come forward and help them do this. Does this impress the US? That is the question.

What had stung Washington out of its stupor are two developments. One was the signing of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline and the second was situation in Iran and how it is unfolding. The west will be damned if they can let the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline happen. They have already talked India out of any such pipeline – though the original proposal was a pipeline between Iran-Pakistan-India, catering ultimately to the huge Indian market. Now that India has backed out, the talk is about taking the pipeline across the Karakoram to Xinjiang in China. That has further compounded west’s problems. The Turkmenistan –China gas pipeline has already started operating and if Iran also jumps onto the Chinese bandwagon, the west will be left twiddling its thumb. To get the Chinese on board on the Iran issue it will be critical to scuttle the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline. Pakistan therefore becomes hugely important. India is waiting for the proposed Trans-Afghanistan gas pipeline to fructify. The whole effort of talking to the various factions of the Taliban including Iran based Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami is to make sure there is peace in the region enough to make the TAP happen. Operation Moshtarak was also an effort to clean up the place to make the pipeline take shape.

For the TAP to happen, Pakistan is a key player. The regional warlords are under the influence of Islamabad. The US cannot operate without the support of Pakistan. The other fact is that the west is in a hurry to get this done and get their troops back home. The hostile Afghan terrain is taking a toll on the western troops and the long dry summer is not going to be easy at all. India is afraid that the US might withdraw in a hurry and leave the region without solving the problems of Afghanistan-Pakistan. Indian foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao on a recent visit to the US exchanged information about the situation in Afghanistan including the recent attack on Indian establishments in Kabul. It was nice of Hillary Clinton to have dropped by and have a chat with Ms. Rao. Suffice to say that the US and India do not see eye to eye on the issue of Afghanistan.

The US is also not sure as to how to deal with the problem of Iran. A punitive strike may be the answer but Washington is not sure if any such step would be good for the faltering world economy, as any conflagration in the Middle East will lead to a spurt in oil prices that could be debilitating for the health of the world economy. The Iranians will make the Persian Gulf inaccessible for the oil tankers with torpedoes and missile attacks. If they have to take any action in the Gulf they would like a free hand and a relatively stable Af-Pak region will be critical for any such maneuver. Again the role of Islamabad will be critical. Obama may now focus on Iran as the contentious health care bill has been passed and that is a monkey off the back of the president.

Pakistan is playing their cards well. They know their utility for the west and are sure that this is the time to ask for what they desire most. Such opportunities do not come very often and now when the west is in a bind, they might as well go in for the kill. They started by demanding the drone technology which was granted to them, now they have upped the ante and demanded that they be given a nuclear deal similar to the one that was offered to India. President George Bush when asked if Pakistan would also be offered a nuclear deal similar to the one signed with India, scoffed at the idea and replied in the negative. Obama has also reacted similarly earlier, but it seems that the Americans find themselves so thoroughly enmeshed in Af-Pak and Iran that they cannot wriggle out of the constant demands of Islamabad. It may be understood that the idea of an Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Deal was floated some eight years ago and the two sides worked for more than five years before they could work it out to the satisfaction of both the sides. Islamabad may not have the kind of patience required and the wherewithal to undertake any such protracted negotiations, what they will have will be a copy of the Indo-US Civilian Nuclear Deal and that is what they will refer to. For them a photocopy of the Indo-US deal will be enough and all they will insist on will be that the US and Pakistani leadership sign on the dotted lines. For them that will be good enough. I am not sure they understand the complexity of any such civilian nuclear deal and it is also not clear whether the Nuclear Suppliers Group will endorse any such agreement. Pakistan is being pig headed when they insist on a nuclear deal on the lines of what was signed with India. Is it spite or just envy? Have they worked out their needs? Do they really need nuclear energy to generate power? Can they not use the huge gas reserves in Balochistan to set up power plants on natural gas? That is also clean energy. As it were Pakistan has nuclear arsenal that is much bigger than what they require. Access to more nuclear fuel may help them increase their nuclear arsenal manifold. With their less than satisfactory proliferation track record, any such nuclear deal is fraught with dangers. What surprises many in the sub-continent is that while the west and Israel are concerned about Iran going nuclear, they accept with nonchalance the increasing nuclear arsenal of Pakistan along with missiles with a range of more than 2,500 kilometers. A nuclear Pakistan is as much a threat to the region including the Middle East as a nuclear Iran.

Pakistan has gotten away with a lot. I will not be surprised if Islamabad is indulged by the west again and handed a civilian nuclear deal. It is also not clear as to how a poor country like Pakistan can afford such massive expenditure as will be needed on nuclear plants. What is clear is that Pakistan is hell-bent on getting parity with India, strategically vis-à-vis the west as well as militarily. There is also a school of thought which believes that the west will engage Pakistan in protracted discussions on a so-called proposed civilian nuclear deal. The discussions will be long and arduous. In the meantime, the west will finish off its agenda in the region, pack their bags and get the hell out of the place. For now at least, they seem to be bending backwards to keep the ball rolling. The grapevine is that diplomatic honchos from Islamabad are already running around in circles in Washington with a copy of the Indo-US deal, trying to get a date on which the leadership of Pakistan and the US can sit down and sign the deal. This is not funny – not at all.

Addendum: This whole controversy about a nuclear deal was started when Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan observed that the US could initiate talks with Pakistan on a possible civilian nuclear deal, looking at their energy and strategic needs. Washington has clarified that no such civilian nuclear pact is on the anvil as yet. It may be observed that Washington is not rejecting any such moves in the future. The question of proliferation and the A.Q. Khan network cropped up, as was expected. It  could well be that the US and India choreographed this whole show for their own strategic needs. While the US dangled the carrot of a possible civilian nuclear deal, the ‘outrage’ in India was manufactured by leaking the news to the press. Washington has upped the ante and has asked Islamabad to do more. To be fair to both Washington and New Delhi the very idea of a civilian nuclear deal with Pakistan is ludicrous, to say the least.  The only lobby which could be keen on any such development is the nuclear lobby, but even they realize that any such business opportunity will have to be underwritten by the west.

Update 24.02.2010: The ‘strategic dialogue’ between the US and Pakistan saw the secretary of state Hillary Clinton at her charming best. It was clear from her demeanour that she was out to woo the Pakistani delegation. The head of the ISI and the army chief General Kayani were present, as was secretary of defence Robert Gates and Richard Holbrooke, John Kerry and others. Shah Mehmud Qureshi in his opening address pointedly referred to the strategic partnership and Pakistan’s role in getting rid of the abominable Soviets, as was expected. Reference to Pakistan’s energy needs was made more than once and Kashmir was also referred to by Qureshi. While the secretary of state Mrs. Clinton did mention that this was not the first meeting between the two sides on a ‘strategic partnership’, this was the first secretary level talks. Qureshi went a step further and remarked that strategic talks between Pakistan and the US started way back in 2006!!! Clearly, Pakistani’s seem to be in a hurry.

This sudden change in the attitude of the US administration is intriguing. I am forced to believe that this strategic dialogue which should be a continuous affair, as pointed out by Mrs. Clinton could also have been initiated because of a proposed offer of bases to China by Islamabad (ref: Militarization of South Asia on this blog). If one knows Pakistan politics at all, they will not hesitate to give away all and more if it serves their purpose. Politics in Pakistan is replete with such instances. Benazir and Nawaz Sharief had been running to Washington at the drop of a hat.  Chinese bases in Pakistan could mean death knell for American interests in the region. The Iran-Pakistan pipeline has of course rattled Washington. This is more than a strategic dialogue – this is a very obvious effort to wean away Pakistan from the embrace of Beijing. The Great Game is on, and Pakistan, fortunately for them, is right in the thick of things. And they are enjoying the attention to the hilt.

What makes the Pakistan strategy amply clear is the fact that Qureshi in his statement pointed out the fact that Pakistan-US relations have not always been hunky-dory and that they have had troughs as well. It was a kind of an oblique indication to the fact that Pakistan has its options open. China has cautiously welcomed any proposed nuclear deal and has said that such a deal should conform to proliferation norms. China is also playing its cards well, as while they would like to see a stronger Pakistan to keep India engaged in South Asia, they would hate to see Islamabad sway away decisively from Beijing to Washington. Pakistan is sitting pretty and can have its cake and eat it too.

Update 25.03.2010: Pakistan has been talking about the acute power crisis, so much so that there are reported power riots in the cities in Pakistan. US has come up with a proposal of setting up three thermal power plants to tide over the power shortage. US will give $51 million for the purpose, an agreement was signed between USAID chief Rajiv Shah and Pakistan minister for power and water resources. Pakistan was looking for nuclear power, evidently, the US is not too keen on that.

Update 27.03.2010: The beginning of the Pakistan-US ‘strategic dialogue’ has resulted in an emboldened Pakistan army build up on the eastern front along the Ind0-Pak border. Terrorist infiltration has increased and there is an encounter between terrorists and Indian forces going on in Kupwara in Kashmir as I write. It is an incorrigible neighbour that we are dealing with, and sometimes the sentiment here in India is that of total resignation as far as our western neighbour is concerned. Does anyone still doubt the utility of Manmohan-Gilani agreement in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt?

Update 11.04.2010: Washington Post has reported that Pakistan has let off at least two key Taliban leaders, one of them being the second-in-command of the Quetta shura Mullah Baradar. When Baradar was caught Shah Mehmud Qureshi had hailed it as a manifestation of the close Pak-US ties. Baradar was however never handed over to the US. It now appears that the Taliban leader has been let off. Pakistan is playing it hard and it will be difficult for Washington to pin them down. This does not bode well for the proposed operations by the ISAF in Kandahar later this year. Meanwhile, Washington will have something to think about and may have to redraw their strategy in Afghanistan, as with limited support from Islamabad, things could get difficult. One must also not forget the recent bombings around the US consulate in Peshawar. The Taliban are showing their teeth and Pakistan is the agent that is helping them around.

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