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Afghan endgame: US sows discord in South Asia

October 27, 2011 14:37 IST

The Afghan endgame is moving into a crucial phase. Much will depend on regional politics involving Pakistan, Iran, India and China. How far the US's 'divide-and-rule' strategy succeeds remains to be seen, says M K Bhadrakumar.

Two templates in the regional politics are seriously debilitating the United States' campaign to bring Pakistan down on its knees in the Afghan endgame. One is that Delhi distanced itself from the US campaign and pursues an independent policy toward Islamabad.

The Pakistan-Iran bonhomie works as a second factor frustrating the US policies to isolate Pakistan. Indeed, Pakistan would have been pretty much isolated had there been an acute rivalry with Iran over the Afghan endgame. The current level of cordiality in the relationship enables Islamabad to focus on the rift with the US and even draw encouragement from Tehran.

The recent statement by External Affairs Minister S M Krishna on the US-Pakistan rift underscored that India doesn't see eye to eye with the US approach. It was carefully timed to signal to Washington (and Islamabad) that Delhi strongly was not in favour of any form of US military action against Pakistan.

A string of evidence would suggest that the Pakistani leadership appreciates the Indian stance. The GHQ in Rawalpindi acted swiftly on Sunday to return to India within hours its chopper with three senior military officers on board which strayed into the Pakistani territory in bad weather in the highly sensitive Siachen sector.

The official spokesman in Delhi went on record conveying India's appreciation of the Pakistani gesture. Such conciliatory gestures are rare (for both sides) in the chronicle of Pakistan-India relationship. Looking ahead, the prime ministers of India and Pakistan are likely to meet on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Male on November 10-11.

Washington would have been quick to insist that it acted as 'facilitator' in fostering the improving climate in India-Pakistan relations. But the US is instead watching with a degree of discomfort that its complicated South Asian symphony is throwing up 'jarring' notes.

Calibrating the India-Pakistan tensions traditionally constituted a key element of the US's regional diplomacy.

Washington has 'retaliated' to Krishna's statement by clamping down a travel 'advisory' cautioning American nationals from visiting India because of heightened terrorist threats. Delhi, in turn, ticked off Washington saying it considered the US move 'disproportionate' -- a cute way of saying it is baloney. 

Jundullah in retreat

What is happening in the Pakistan-Iran relationship is even more galling for the US. There has been a spate of high-level visits between Islamabad and Tehran and the two capitals have reached mutual understanding on a range of security interests.

Last week, Tehran acknowledged that there has not been a single attack by the terrorist group Jundullah from the Pakistani side of the border in the Baluchistan region during the past 10-month period.

Tehran has accused the US of masterminding the Jundullah terrorists to stage covert operations to destablise Iran. However, during the period since the detention of the CIA operative Raymond Davis in Lahore in January, Islamabad clamped down on hundreds of US intelligence operatives functioning on Pakistani soil. This has seriously cramped the US's capacity to dispatch the Jundullah terrorists into Iran.

Tehran is satisfied that Pakistani security establishment is finally acting purposively to smash up the US-backed Jundullah network. It reciprocates Pakistan's goodwill by trying to harmonise its Afghan policy and it scrupulously avoided pointing fingers at Pakistan for the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani who was closely allied with Tehran.

Essentially, Iran appreciates that Pakistan's 'strategic defiance' of the US will be in the interest of regional stability, the bottom line being that Tehran is keen to force the American troops to leave the region.

Tehran succeeded in the pursuit of a similar objective in Iraq by prevailing upon the Shi'ite political elites in Baghdad not to accede to the desperate pleas by the US to allow US troops to continue even after the stipulated deadline of withdrawal in December 2011 under the status of forces agreement. But Afghanistan is a different kettle of fish and a common strategy with Pakistan will help.

Pakistan keeps an ambivalent stance on the issue of long-term US military presence in Afghanistan, but it can count on the Taliban to robustly oppose the US plans apropos military bases. Unsurprisingly, Tehran purses a multi-pronged approach toward the Taliban.

Concerted effort

In sum, the overall regional scenario is becoming rather unfavourable to the US. The easing of tensions in Pakistan's relations with India and Iran undermines the US strategy to get embedded in the region.

The US's travel 'advisory' was intended to raise hackles in India about the imminent possibility of Pakistan-supported terrorist activities. Again, US-sponsored disinformation is reappearing that China and Pakistan are conspiring against India by setting Chinese military bases in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, which form part of Kashmir.

This is coinciding with a distinct improvement in the security situation in the Kashmir Valley to the point Chief Minister Omar Abdullah openly advocated last week in Srinagar that the decades-old emergency regulations should be progressively withdrawn and a serious engagement of Pakistan be initiated by Delhi to settle Kashmir problem.

The US-backed propaganda about the prospect of Chinese military bases in the Pakistani part of Kashmir is intended to serve a dual purpose, namely, creating discord in the Sino-Indian relations, too.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made a significant statement last week that he was 'convinced' that the Chinese leadership wanted a peaceful resolution of all problems between India and China, including the long-running border dispute. Significantly, he expressed his "sincere hope [that] it is possible for us to find ways and means by which the two neighbours can live in peace and amity despite the persistence of the border problem."

Dr Singh's remarks assumed significance since the two countries are to shortly hold the 15th round of talks on the border issue in New Delhi. In a meaningful move, the Chinese foreign ministry responded to the PM's political overture. Beijing said China is "ready to work with India to enhance the China-India strategic partnership."

The statement said: "As important neighbours to each other, China and India have maintained sound momentum in the bilateral relationship. As for the border issue left over from history, the two sides have been seeking a fair, reasonable and mutually acceptable solution through friendly consultations. Pending a final solution, the two sides are committed to maintaining peace and tranquility in the border areas."

A season for propaganda

Quite obviously, the speculative, unattributed -- and unverifiable -- reports regarding Chinese intentions to establish military bases in the upper reaches of the Kashmir region under Pakistani control are surging again at a formative point in regional security.

Their laboured thesis is that Delhi should be extremely wary about the 'devious' intentions of China and Pakistan and should go slow on the normalisation of relations with these 'treacherous' neighbours.

Curiously, Delhi is also being bombarded at the same time with the US propaganda that Washington is striking a 'grand bargain' with Pakistan over the Afghan problem whereby there will be a mutual accommodation of each other's concerns, which may include US intervention to mediate the Kashmir problem and US pressure on Delhi to roll back its presence in Afghanistan.

In a motivated commentary in the Foreign Policy magazine last week on the eve of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Islamabad, two prominent US think tankers wired to the Washington establishment actually tried to alternatively bait Islamabad and frighten Delhi by putting on the table the ingredients of the 'grand bargain'. Truly, this is all turning out to be a season for propaganda.

The heart of the matter is that the US is desperate to clinch the strategic agreement with the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul, which would allow the establishment of long-term American military presence in Afghanistan.

On Monday, hundreds of Afghans demonstrated in Kabul against the US bases. The lower house of the Afghan parliament rejected on Monday the terms guiding the operations of the Afghan government's existing agreement with the ISAF as violating the country's sovereignty. The mood in the Afghan parliament seems 'hostile'.

Karzai is convening a Loya Jirga to seek endorsement for the US-Afghan pact. Matters will come to a head when the Loya Jirga meets on November 16. Karzai promises that the US-Afghan pact will be sent to Parliament for approval after being discussed in the Jirga.

Washington insists that the Loya Jirga approves the draft pact before the Bonn II Conference convenes in December. Karzai's political future depends on whether he can deliver the pact.

All sitting parliamentarians, some former MPs, one-third of the provincial council members, representatives of civil society and distinguished people, religious scholars and influential tribal leaders have been invited to the Jirga. Two hundred and thirty representatives of Afghan refugee communities in Pakistan, Iran and western countries would also be in attendance in the 2030-strong Jirga.

On September 13, Afghan national security advisor Dadfar Spanta told the Afghan parliamentarians that the US might set up military bases in Afghanistan after the signing of the pact but that the pact wouldn't be inked unless approved by the Parliament. Spanta added, "Concerns of our neighbours [over the US-Afghan pact] are genuine, but we will not allow our soil to be used against them."

The Afghan parliament fears, however, that Karzai might choose to bypass it after extracting endorsement from a pliant Jirga and interpreting that as the collective opinion of the Afghan nation. The parliament directed the speaker on Monday to address an official communication to Karzai highlighting its constitutional prerogative to approve foreign policy issues. 

Evidently, the Afghan endgame is moving into a crucial phase. Much will depend on regional politics. The worst-case scenario for the US is that subsuming the contradictions in the intra-regional relationships between and amongst Pakistan, Iran, India and China, these countries might have a convergent opinion on the issue of American military bases.

An accentuation of these contradictions, therefore, would serve the US's geopolitical interests at the present juncture. How far the US's 'divide-and-rule' strategy succeeds remains to be seen. 

M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat. He blogs @ India Punchline

M K Bhadrakumar