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Bending the Arc of Crisis

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heads to Washington later this month,the deepening regional crisis in Afghanistan...

Written by C. Raja Mohan |
November 11, 2009 2:11:55 am

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh heads to Washington later this month,the deepening regional crisis in Afghanistan,Pakistan and beyond is thrusting itself on to the very top of the bilateral agenda.

The gathering tension — internal,bilateral and regional — across the western and north-western flanks of the subcontinent must begin to over-ride four widespread perceptions or misperceptions about his visit to Washington.

The first is that the prime minister is likely to duck the most important national security debate in Washington today — on the future of America’s role in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The second,India may have little to offer the United States on Afghanistan and even less on Pakistan. The third is that after departure of George W. Bush from the White House,Washington is drawn towards the CCP in Beijing on global issues and to the GHQ in Rawalpindi on regional security questions,leaving the relationship with India in a limbo. The fourth is that both sides are thinking too small about the meeting between Dr Singh and Obama. Instead of using the visit to unveil a transformative agenda,the fears are that Delhi and Washington may be settling for a long list of minor deliverables.

Sceptics have argued that by giving Dr Singh the much sought-after privilege of the first state visit in the Obama White House,the administration might be absolving itself of the responsibility to do anything significant with India. Put simply the cynical view of the prime minister’s visit to Washington is that it will be long on rhetoric but short on substance. But the unfolding developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan are too consequential for the national security of both India and the United States for their leaders to waste the opportunity for thinking at the highest levels about political cooperation on stabilising the north-western parts of the Subcontinent.

Meanwhile,Obama’s Af-Pak strategy,announced with such fanfare less than nine months ago,is in danger of being aborted. All its initial assumptions are now under intensive,and seemingly interminable,review in Washington. Whatever Obama’s much-anticipated decisions on Afghanistan might be,Delhi should be aware that reactive improvisation,rather than a pre-set strategy,will drive the administration’s policy towards the Af-Pak region from now on.

Consider the events of the last few weeks. October was a bad month for the US in the Af-Pak region. The 56 deaths in October have been the highest in any month since the US ousted the Taliban in Afghanistan at the end of 2001. The rising toll of casualties in Afghanistan has compelled Obama to underline the dangers of sending a larger number of American troops into the north-western subcontinent without a clear perspective on objectives and means.

Meanwhile,Washington’s mishandling of the Afghan presidential elections has widened the cracks between the Obama administration and the Hamid Karzai government in Kabul. As US policies helped divide its friends in Afghanistan,the Taliban and their mentors in Pakistan have begun to gloat that it was a matter of time before the American forces are pushed out of Afghanistan.

Although the Obama administration has welcomed and supported the Pakistan army’s latest operations in Waziristan,Washington is concerned that Islamabad might never be willing to take on the Afghan Taliban. Somewhat unexpectedly New Delhi and Washington find themselves in the same boat: the Pakistan army may fight the militant groups that have dared to contest its territorial control but has no desire to curb let alone destroy those extremist groups that want to harm the United States and India.

Meanwhile the US legislation — the Kerry-Lugar Act — offering $7.5 billion of assistance to the civilian sector in Pakistan over the next five years has resulted in a storm of public protest. Angered at the act’s vague suggestion that there should be greater civilian control over the military,the Pakistan army promoted a vicious campaign against the Kerry-Lugar Act,which enveloped US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Pakistan last week and exposed the profound trust deficit between Washington and Islamabad.

The negative consequences of the Taliban’s triumph will not be limited to the subcontinent,but envelop the Gulf,sharpen the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia,accentuate sectarian tension between Shi’as and Sunnis,and destabilise the Central Asian republics.

Dr Singh and Obama,then,must reassure each other about an enduring respect for mutual interests in this arc of crisis,mandate their security establishments to intensify exchanges,and agree on specific joint steps to stabilise Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In extending a hand of friendship to Pakistan and reviving the peace initiative in Jammu and Kashmir during his visit to Srinagar last week,Dr Singh has reinforced his own reputation as a man of peace,and as someone who is willing to persist in engaging Pakistan against great odds and extraordinary provocation. He has also underlined India’s responsibility as a rising power in pacifying its own neighbourhood and working with great powers like the United States to promote regional security.

It is now Obama’s turn to put down unambiguously the temptations in his bureaucracy to inject the US into a mediatory role in Jammu and Kashmir,and end Washington’s traditional inhibitions in talking with India about Pakistan’s future.

Once they figure a way to work together in Afghanistan and Pakistan,it should be lot easier for

Dr. Singh and Obama to set a solid bilateral agenda for the next three years — from liberalising trade in advanced technologies to deepening the defence partnership,combating the proliferation of nuclear weapons to the mitigation of global warming,and from reordering the international financial system to managing the global commons.

The writer is Henry A. Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations at the Library of Congress,Washington,DC

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