As US President Barack Obama receives the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan on Wednesday,India must discount the breathless Western reporting on collapsing states and loose nukes that has sought to define the terms of
the trilateral engagement at the White House.
While the growing power of the Taliban across the Durand Line is of great concern to India,New Delhi should recognise that Washington and Islamabad have considerable room for muddling through the current Af-Pak crisis.
The latest alarm bells going off in Washington are only about Obama trying to reframe the partnership with Islamabad and probably getting his own Pakistani crew. The Pakistan army,in turn,wants a higher price for its services. The stage then is truly set for an intense round of strategic bargaining between Washington and Islamabad.
Much of the world,including India,applauded Obama for recognising that Afghanistan cant be stabilised without addressing the sources of regional instability in Pakistan. But few have been prepared for the rapid shift in Washingtons objectives from protecting Afghanistan to salvaging a Pakistan that is presumed to be on the verge of collapse.
Reviewing all the current American fuss about Pakistan,Afghan President Hamid Karzai might rightly tell himself that more things change in Washington,the more they stay the same.
Three decades ago,at the end of the 70s,America showered the Pakistan army led by Gen Zia-ul- Haq with goodies in order to win his support for ousting the Russians from Afghanistan. The Afghans who actually fought the war were left high and dry as Washington abandoned them after the Soviet Union ended its occupation.
After 9/11,Bush rewarded the Pak army led by Gen Pervez Musharraf for its promised support in fighting Al-Qaeda,but did little to promote stability and prosperity in Afghanistan. Following the much-publicised review of US policy
towards Pakistan and Afghanistan,Obama has come up with exactly the same answer as Bush throw more money at Pakistan.
To be sure,Obama is trying to cope with a new reality the Talibans seamless extension of the war across the Durand Line and its capacity to paralyse the Pakistani political leaders into inaction. But the shift in American focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan,however,will have immediate consequences.
If the American objective is to stabilise Afghanistan,Washington would be mounting pressure on the Pakistan army to change its policies. If the aim,instead,is to prevent state failure in Pakistan and the jihadis gaining control of its nuclear arsenal,America will have to turn to the only credible Pak institution,the army.
The American reliance on the Pak army is clearly an enduring one. That Obama chose to trash Pakistans civilian leaders and praise its army a week before receiving Zardari suggests that regime change may be back in fashion.
There is speculation in Washington that the Obama administration might be quite happy to see the army replace the incompetent civilian leaders. Some say the US might give former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif a shot before a final wink and nod to Gen Ashfaq Kayani.
Obamas assertion that Pakistans civilian government is fragile and incapable of delivering results could not have been a shocking discovery in Washington. Americans,more than anyone else,know that neither Zardari nor his recent civilian predecessors were ever guilty of meddling in Pakistans policies towards Afghanistan,India and nuclear weapons. These issue areas have been under the armys uncontested
In a recent testimony to the US Congress,a top adviser to the Pentagon on counter-insurgency,David Kilcullen,underlined a few basic facts about the current situation in Pakistan. He said there is overwhelming evidence that Pakistans civilian government does not control its own national security establishment; the security agencies have been complicit in allowing a takeover of parts of the country by militants; and direct or indirect sponsorship of international terrorism by
elements of the Pakistani national security establishment.
Kilcullen also insisted there was ongoing support by the same
national security establishment for insurgents who are killing Americans in Afghanistan. His clincher was that all this has occurred during the same period when we have given the Pakistani military 10 billion dollars to fight against
extremism and terrorism.
It is not anyones case that Obama is unaware of this reality. Nor is he being wilful. Like Bush,Obama is tied down by the proposition that there is no alternative to the Pakistan army in dealing with US problems in the region. Some day,Washington might question this proposition. That day,for all the current doomsday scenarios in the US media,is not yet upon us.
For now,Obama can only outdo Bushs generosity towards Pakistan. He is offering US $15 billion as economic assistance in the next ten years. The US is also mobilising all its allies to shovel more money towards Pakistan. At a Tokyo meeting of the donors last month,Americas allies offered another US $5 billion. No one is counting the billions of military aid that Washington is offering the Pak army.
If the US has few good options in Pakistan,India has even fewer. As it watches Obamas Af-Pak strategy unfold,Indias immediate priorities must be two-fold. One is to prevent another major terrorist attack from across the border that would suck India into a broadening Af-Pak conflict. The other is to develop a range of credible options that would allow New Delhi to intervene in the Af-Pak crisis at a time and place of its own choosing.
The writer is at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,Nanyang Technological University,Singapore