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Lack of clarity

April 30, 2010

Prime Minsiter Manmohan Singh and his Pakistan counterpart Yusuf Raza Gilani met on the sidelines of the SAARC summit. Or shall we say that the SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) summit was held on the sidelines of the Manmohan-Gilani meet, and as G. Parthasarthy, former Indian diplomat said, this was the irony of the situation. There was too much hype on the Manmohan-Gilani meeting that lasted all of 50 precious minutes. India’s relations with Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan are equally important to Indian interests and to the Indian people. Be as it may, perhaps the presence of international forces in Afghanistan made the Manmohan-Gilani meeting the talk of the summit. I am sure the Indian delegation headed by Manmohan Singh utilized the opportunity to reach out to all the members of SAARC and not just Pakistan.

The Manmohan-Gilani meet was a resumption of formal dialogue between the two countries post 26/11 Mumbai attacks. This was a big step forward in itself and leaders of both the nations need to be congratulated on reaching out to each other at this critical juncture. Yes, this is a critical time for the region. The future of South Asia may be decided by the steps taken by the leaderships of the two countries and to some extent by the leadership of Afghanistan too. It may be added here that Pakistan had amassed more than hundred thousand troops along its eastern borders with India. What prompted such an aggressive posture by Pakistan still remains a mystery, suffice to say that Pakistan had focused on the Indian side of their border and there were massive military exercises conducted by the Pakistan army along with their air force.

The resumption of the talks between the two South Asian neighbors has been welcomed by all including the US. The Sharm el-Sheikh joint declaration did not deliver the desired results as there were loud protests here in India as there was a mention of Indian ‘involvement’ in Balochistan in the declaration. Pakistan found enough excuses for not doing what they were supposed to do – go after the Taliban on the Af-Pak border. The German bakery attack and the beheading of two Sikhs in North West Frontier Province by the Taliban soured an already acrid atmosphere. The Pakistan press picked up an innocuous comment by the Indian army chief and that was enough for them to talk out aloud about the threat emanating from India. Washington knows as well as New Delhi that these are postures to avoid taking a tough stance against the Taliban. What intrigues me is as to why the USA cannot undertake a guarantee of Pakistan’s security the way they give to the various members of NATO and call Pakistan’s bluff. A guarantee of military security by the US against any attacks from India should settle the issue once and for all. They are in the region anyway and it should not be too difficult for them to undertake a security assurance vis-à-vis India, when they are in such close association with New Delhi.

What started in Sharm el-Sheikh has been repeated in Thimpu, the beautiful capital of Bhutan. While there has been no joint declaration this time around, nor any joint press conference, it is clear that Pakistan and India have moved forward and Pakistan has assured India that it will take steps to bring the perpetrators of the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. We all know that these are but empty rhetoric, for how can one take a nation seriously that asks for the custody of the one attacker who was captured alive in the Mumbai attacks, citing that there are cases pending against the man in Pakistan!!! Do the Pakistanis take us Indians for absolute fools or do they believe that they are so smart that they can get away with murder and more and that there will be no one to question them or to stop them. The overwhelming majority believes that Pakistan will do nothing against Hafiz Saeed. Manmohan Singh knows it too. Left to us, we would have never started any talks with Pakistan and would have dealt with Pakistan very differently had there been no presence of the US and allies in the neighborhood. What changes things for us is the fact that the US is in Afghanistan and they have their strategic compulsions and those are not too inimical to Indian interests in the region. Our hope is that Pakistan now starts a real offensive against the various factions of Taliban on their side of the border.

The ISAF is planning an offensive in Kandhar and south-eastern Afghanistan sometime in July. A Pakistani offensive from their side of the border will be crucial for any substantial success to these operations. The Thimpu talks were to assure of ‘normalcy’ in relations between India and Pakistan and to assuage any fears that Pakistan may have had of an Indian offensive. Of course, the world knows that these are just postures to avoid taking any real measures against the Taliban that is seen as a strategic asset by Pakistan post the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The most distressing part from the Indian point of view is that the US does not seem to be clear of its medium and long term plans for Afghanistan. How the Afghan question will unfold is anyone’s guess. What we know for sure is that President Obama has promised that the US will start pulling out from Afghanistan in 2011. If that is how it is going to be, I hope the US administration has the courtesy to inform as to how fast and in what proportion are they planning to withdraw. The Iran question is still simmering and the US may need forces if they decide on any punitive strikes against Tehran. What we do not know for sure is as to when (if at all) the US plans to withdraw completely from Afghanistan. If they are planning to withdraw completely from Afghanistan, then the least they can do is to inform their allies in the neighborhood of their plans. The situation is very unclear. If we are going that extra mile for our friends from the west, we deserve to be informed of their plans in the region.

When Nirupama Rao, the Indian foreign secretary went to Washington she was told that the US will go ahead and withdraw as per their plans. For us, the fact is that we can never ‘withdraw’ from Afghanistan. It is a strategically important country for us. The Pashtuns have been friends of India for centuries and Afghanistan is our backyard. We cannot afford to abandon our Afghan friends. There were voices that talked about a partial withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan. A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan will lead to anarchy and chaos in this volatile country of varied ethnicity. Karzai has already dissuaded the Americans from arming villagers to fight against the Taliban as these same people will turn into militias and become a problem for the government in Kabul once the Americans are gone.

The fact is that neither the American aims nor their approach to achieving those objectives are very clear. If their agenda is the successful installation of TAP then again, some western military presence in Afghanistan will be essential for the security of the pipeline. Karzai may not be the most upright politician but then are not the Americans trying to buy out the loyalty of various clans. How is that different from what Karzai is doing? He is throwing freebees to friends and adversaries. Americans are throwing dollars at those they do not or want to avoid fighting.

There are conflicting signals emanating from the White House. It could be that Obama has not made up his mind yet and is waiting to see how the situation in Iran unfolds before taking a call on Afghanistan. What we do know is that there will be some withdrawal of the American forces from Afghanistan in 2011. Even a token withdrawal by the US will be a big morale booster for Taliban in South Afghanistan and those in the FATA region of Pakistan. Obama cannot avoid doing something that he has promised. India has done what we had to do, and the talks in Thimpu were more for our friends in the west than for our own strategic needs. Left to us, we would have dealt with Islamabad more firmly. I hope the US clearly defines its game plan in Afghanistan so that we can plan out future strategy accordingly.

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