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'US should ask India to show restraint'

Aziz Hanffa in Washington, DC | December 17, 2008 08:49 IST
Last Updated: December 17, 2008 11:12 IST

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One of America's leading experts on Afghanistan says the United States is urging India to exercise restraint against launching punitive attacks against Pakistan in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks. The US should convince India that Washington's concerns are genuine and not governed by its own vested interests vis-a-vis its global war on terror, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution and the Afghanistan expert at the much-respected Washington think-tank, said.

While it is imperative that US diplomacy should continue "to focus on reducing tensions between India and Pakistan," and work assiduously to avoid a conflict between the two nuclear-armed nations, she said "at the same time, India cannot believe that our approach to India is simply because we are concerned about Afghanistan."

"There needs to be a feeling that this is in fact a genuine and robust relationship with India," and that the US is coming down on Pakistan in order to prevail on Islamabad [Images] to shut down and arrest the leaders of the terrorist networks and camps from where the attacks on Mumbai were planned and launched.

Pakistan has warned that if there is any perception of India massing its troops on the border for a possible attack against Pakistan, it will be forced to remove its troops from its western border with Afghanistan and redeploy them on the eastern border with India to defend itself, and consequently would be constrained to help the US in its war on terror against Al Qaeda [Images].

Felbab-Brown said India would find it difficult if Pakistan continues to delay in going after the terrorist camps on its territory and closing them down for India to moderate its response, although restraint and a moderate response "may be in the best interests of India itself."

She pointed to it being "a very delicate matter for several reasons from India facing national elections very soon and obviously India is the victim here."

However, Felbab-Brown, also a security studies professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and also a non-resident research fellow with the Belfer Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, said, the degree of pressure that can be exerted on Pakistan also has to be measured and cannot go overboard to the extent that it would destabilise President Asif Zardari's civilian government.

"The level of pressure that can be exerted needs to be moderated by the fact that the Zardari government is rather weak and faces a lot of internal opposition as well as dissent," she said, because "the war on terrorism, the war in FATA (Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas) is not its own and it is imposed from the United States," she argued.

Felbab-Brown, echoing the contention by many analysts here that much of the proxy wars and terrorism launched against India from Pakistan is part of the paranoia Islamabad suffers from in the wake of India and Afghanistan getting closer and the proliferation of Indian involvement in Afghanistan with a plethora of economic activities and massive aid to the Kabul government, argued that "it is really important to restrain India's activities in Afghanistan."

She acknowledged that India's activities in Afghanistan "are perfectly legitimate," since they are "in their own national economic, national interests, and as such appropriate activities," like providing economic aid to the Hamid Karzai [Images] government in Kabul.

But she reiterated that however legitimate this was aggravating the fears in Pakistan about some kind of an encirclement and thus it was in Washington's interest to try and moderate India's influence and activities in Afghanistan.

Felbab-Brown said this had been done, particularly from discouraging India from "volunteering actual military forces, even though President Karzai has at least at times used this as a way to retaliate against the inflammatory remarks from Pakistan," particularly during the earlier regime in Islamabad led by then president Pervez Musharraf [Images].

But she said in restraining India from offering up forces, the US had in some ways calmed tensions "by not allowing this to happen and this, of course, is not an easy one because we are actually suffering from a lack of forces by the NATO coalition and its other partners (in Afghanistan)."

Earlier, in a paper titled 'The Implications of the Mumbai Attacks for Afghanistan,' Felbab-Brown warned that 'the bloody terrorist attacks in Mumbai have serious repercussions for NATO efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban [Images] insurgency.'

'Whether or not,' she said, 'any alleged links between the Mumbai terrorists and Pakistan are confirmed, the rise in tensions between India and Pakistan and the possible further escalation of their bilateral disputes will hamper the military campaign against the Taliban, likely exacerbate the crisis of governance in Afghanistan, and jeopardise efforts to imbed the country in a regional security framework.'

Felbab-Brown predicted that 'at a minimum, the terrorist attacks will delay a quick launch of a regional initiative toward Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India that has been urged by analysts to be the centerpiece of the incoming administration's policy toward the region.'

'The initiative was devised to assist Pakistan and India in reaching accommodation over Kashmir and reducing tensions along their border so that Pakistan could genuinely embrace efforts against jihadi militants on its western front.'

Felbab-Brown attributed the Taliban's ability to recoup in Pakistan and launch an intense insurgency against the Karzai government and NATO to Islamabad's reluctance for several years until recently to attack the Taliban safe havens in Baluchistan, the FATA, and the Northwest Frontier Province.

Even the recent Pakistani attacks against the Taliban, she said, which she described as 'rather fickle and lukewarm,' have been 'mainly due to US inducements -- both pressure, including in the form of US air strikes into Pakistan, and US aid transfers.'

'Underlying Pakistan's reluctance to target the Taliban have not only been the long-standing and carefully cultivated ties to the mujaheddin by the Pakistani intelligence services, the ISI, but also crucially the Pakistani military view that Afghanistan could provide a necessary strategic depth for Pakistan during a military confrontation with India,' she said.

According to Felbab-Brown, 'Given India's conventional military superiority and the difficulties in defending the narrow territory that separates the border with India from Islamabad and Peshawar, the Pakistani military has considered it imperative to be able to fall back into Afghanistan, recoup forces there, and launch a counterattack against India. Above all, an encirclement by hostile powers in Afghanistan and India has to be avoided.'

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