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An era draws down

India must confront the fallout of America’s decline in its northwest.

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
September 27, 2011 2:39:40 am

In his address to the United Nations General Assembly last Friday,Prime Minister Manmohan Singh came down against the recent Western interventions in the Middle East undertaken in the name of promoting democracy and protecting innocent civilians from oppressive dictators.

Delhi’s rhetoric on the principle of non-intervention and its criticism of Western policies in the Middle East are part of an old Indian foreign policy tradition. It is driven as much by ideology as the domestic political considerations of the Congress party.

The immediate challenges to India’s national security,however,stem less from the current Western interventions,legitimate or otherwise,in Libya,Syria and other parts of the Middle East. They arise from the potential failure of the Western intervention in Afghanistan. It was certainly one Western intervention that served India’s interests.

The ouster of the Taliban from power in Kabul overturned Pakistan’s expansive influence in Afghanistan established after the withdrawal of Soviet troops from that nation at the end of the 1980s.

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The US occupation of Afghanistan over the last decade allowed India to re-gain its influence across the Durand Line that separates the territories of Islamabad and Kabul.

As President Barack Obama prepares for the withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan by 2014,Pakistan is gearing up to move back in,this time with significant Chinese support.

The spectacular terror attack against the US embassy in Kabul by the Haqqani network and the chilling deception employed by the Taliban to murder Burhanuddin Rabbani,the principal mediator from the Afghan government,earlier this month,underline the new adventurism of the Pakistan army.

Both the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban have enjoyed sanctuaries in Pakistan and the ISI’s support to destabilise Afghanistan.

In the last few days,the Obama administration has gone public with charges that the Haqqani network is a “veritable arm” of the ISI and the demand that the Pakistan army dissociate itself from its proxies in Afghanistan.

External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna has claimed that the recent US statements “vindicate” the Indian case on the enduring support of Pakistan’s state agencies to cross-border terrorism.

After all,the Haqqani network was behind the attacks on the Indian embassy in Kabul in July 2008. And Pakistan’s other proxy,the Lashkar-e-Toiba,was behind the Mumbai terror outrage in November 2008.

If the explicit American criticism of Pakistan’s deliberate use of terrorism as state policy is welcome,Delhi should be deeply concerned about the logic behind Rawalpindi’s strategic defiance of the US.

The “vindication” of the Indian position — on Pakistan’s support to terror groups — is of no real consequence if the US and the Western world are unable to press Rawalpindi to change course.

For more than a year,the US had been pressing Rawalpindi to take action against the Haqqani network. Instead of complying with the US requests,Rawalpindi has boldly supported the latest terror attacks on US targets in Afghanistan.

It is quite tempting to believe that the Pakistan army chief,General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani,might have overreached. India must,however,assume that the current strategic defiance of the Pakistan army is a calculated one.

Central to Rawalpindi’s calculus is the bet that the US does not have too many options left in Afghanistan and that,with sufficient pressure,Washington will be compelled to accommodate the Pakistan army’s interests across the Durand Line.

Many in Pakistan’s strategic community seem quite convinced that Washington needs Rawalpindi more than the other way round.

When the US threatened to cut off military aid earlier this year,the Pakistan army ostentatiously declared that it could do without it.

Recent statements by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta that the US might undertake unilateral military action against the Haqqani network have elicited not fear but scorn from Rawalpindi.

The traditional American tricks of winning the Pakistan army’s support through carrots and sticks are not working. Delhi would surely want to know why.

An insight into Pakistan’s new thinking came when Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and General Kayani met Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul last April.

Leaked reports on the meeting indicated that Gilani and Kayani had warned Karzai not to offer military bases to the US after it pulls out most of its troops by 2014. They told Karzai that America was on the decline and that Kabul would be better off looking towards Pakistan and China to find political accommodation with the Taliban and develop the Afghan economy.

Since the mid 1950s,one of India’s biggest national security challenges has been the US alliance with Pakistan. It now appears that the breakdown of that alliance might have even bigger consequences for India.

One is the prospect that China might replace the US as Pakistan’s principal ally. Rawalpindi’s current defiance of Washington can only be understood in terms of a rapid deepening of the China-Pakistan strategic partnership and a power shift away from the US towards China at the global and regional level.

Although India has always been concerned about the security ties between Pakistan and China,Delhi now faces a transformed alliance on its northwestern border.

Rising China’s massive economic and military resources,the Pakistan army’s control over a vital geopolitical real estate,and the resurgence of the Taliban and other extremist forces will present India with unprecedented difficulties.

Nearly four generations of Indian leaders have had the luxury of posturing against the West. As Rawalpindi,Beijing and the Taliban get the better of Washington in Afghanistan,Delhi must prepare to confront the consequences of American decline and a stronger China-Pakistan alliance at its borderlands.

The writer is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research,Delhi
express@expressindia.com

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