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Home > News > Columnists > M K Bhadrakumar

No way to treat Pakistan

June 15, 2007

The spectacle unfolding in Pakistan is extraordinary, even by the yardstick of that country's tortuous 60-year history.

The ease with which United States Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher could prise through the thick fat layers of Pakistani party politics within a day, as if he were carving turkey for a Thanksgiving dinner, offers salutary lessons.

Boucher is one of 24 officials of the rank of assistant secretary currently deployed in the US State Department. Washington thought it sufficient to deploy Boucher for such a highly sensitive mission assessing the staying power of the regime headed by President Pervez Musharraf [Images], a key 'non-NATO' ally.

It is hardly six months since US President George W Bush revealed to the international community that he and Musharraf were going on a 'hunt' together -- in search of Taliban bigwigs in the lawless mountains and valleys of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

Pakistan: Some likely scenarios

The hunt is far from over. As far as we know, it is getting curiouser and curiouser. Influential voices in the US and UK have begun saying that it may be prudent to rehabilitate the quarry in Kabul rather than carry on with the hunt.

At any rate, the hunt seems to be at a defining moment. It is rare that midway through such an exciting hunt, you change a partner.

Washington surely must know that. So, what is afoot? Boucher, who is visiting Islamabad for the third time in six months, is certainly attempting to rattle Musharraf.

No earth-shaking new factor had arisen for him to rush to Islamabad just a week ahead of Pakistan Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri's scheduled visit to Washington.

Boucher's tour was preceeded in recent days by a media campaign in the US, which had all the hallmarks of a calibrated move, underscoring the need for Washington to rethink its tie-up with Musharraf. Several US think-tanks independently echoed similar views in recent weeks.

Following Boucher's field inspection of the political layout in Islamabad, which has been very thorough by all accounts, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte may arrive in the Pakistan capital shortly.

Negroponte is one of America's ablest diplomats. Bush handpicked him as ambassador to Iraq in succession to Paul Bremmer, and then as his maiden nominee for the newly created post of director of National Intelligence.

Negroponte's forte had been to make tough Latin American dictators crawl meekly as American minions in the wild Amazonian jungles during the Cold War era. And he consistently proved effective.

Negroponte doesn't have a career record of promoting democracy in foreign countries, and would be truly an unlike instrument of regional policy if Washington's historic intention were to allow Pakistan to revert to democratic rule.

'US' Pak policy hasn't proved effective'

This brings us back to the hunt in the Hindu Kush.

The fact of the matter is that the nature of the hunt has undergone a change. New templates have appeared with a ferocity that few could foresee. There is growing talk of a 'new Cold War'. The US is gearing up to push its strategic posture into Central Asia.

The Pamir mountains may block the view from South Asian capitals, but there has been an enormous build-up in American diplomacy in Central Asia. In recent weeks alone, visitors to the region included Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, amongst others. 'Washington policymakers are scrambling' to Central Asia, as Ariel Cohen of the neo-conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation put it.

Afghanistan no doubt is assuming an importance in the American region policy that goes way beyond the hurlyburly of the 'war on terror'. Indeed, militant Islam could have strange uses all over again � in Central Asia, Xinjiang and North Caucasus � though the Soviet Union has become a part of history.

Furthermore, after the recent weeks' moderation, US posturing toward Iran has assumed a hostile turn lately. An ingenious campaign is appearing to the effect that Shia Iran is messing around with the extremist Wahhabi elements within Afghanistan.

According to Iran, on the other hand, the US presence in Afghanistan is enabling Washington to support terrorist activities inside its Sistan-Baluchistan province, which borders Pakistan.

American media reports indicate Pakistani military and intelligence also playing a role in covert US activities against Iran. All this is fuelling speculation of a careful American build-up leading to a military confrontation with Iran.

Evidently, Pakistan is being thrust into the role of a 'frontline State' all over again. But it is a dubious role in the best of circumstances.

It is entirely conceivable that there are no willing takers in Islamabad today for a role in US regional policy as a 'frontline State'. Apart from the backdrop of the huge groundswell of 'anti-Americanism' within Pakistan, other compelling factors are at work.

Rawalpindi cannot but realise that a front seat in an American limousine heading toward a 'new Cold War' could pit Pakistan against China, Russia [Images], Iran and the Central Asian States.

Even an audacious commando like Musharraf would know Pakistan's limitations. Therefore, some amount of arm-twisting by Washington is certainly called for.

Musharraf battles the odds

Washington knows that it ultimately has to depend on the Pakistani army. Civilian supremacy in Pakistan is bound to pose problems for the US. Politicians are accountable, and would be reluctant to allow a field day for the US intelligence agencies operating beyond the pale of law inside their country.

The optimal arrangement for Washington in the present difficult situation would be a mishmash of a regime in Islamabad that is in a state of disequilibria -� a hybrid State caught in a suspended state of animation somewhere between a functioning democracy and authoritarian rule.

That is best achievable if Pakistan's civilian politicians are catapulted into co-habitation with its military politicians. Both the constituents in such a power calculus will remain beholden to Washington's midwifery.

That may not be a permanent solution. But, then, in the long run, we are all dead anyway.

Negroponte has his job cut out for him.

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