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'Next front in India-Pak confrontation will be Afghanistan'

July 18, 2013 11:27 IST

The two countries that will be most affected by the internal developments in Pakistan are India and the United States, says Bob Blackwill. Aziz Haniffa reports

Robert Blackwill, ex-United States envoy to India, considered one of the leading strategic thinkers in the country, credited with spearheading the US-India strategic partnership, predicts Afghanistan will ‘be a mess’ after the US and NATO troop withdrawal. He says India would be the most adversely impacted as Pakistan resurrects its terrorist activity against New Delhi.

Blackwill, who was part of the Ambassadors Roundtable at the annual leadership summit of the US-India Business Council, said, “There is no evidence that the Pakistani military has changed its basic view that its primary mission is to deal with the rise of India power.”

“There is no evidence that the Pakistani military, which controls the security policy of Pakistan, has reduced its intent to support terrorist organisations that have as their mission killing Indians,” he said

Blackwill noted that “its summer season in the Himalayas and infiltration is up again, supported by the Inter-Services Intelligence. Even more worrisome is the internal dynamics of Pakistan itself. Here’s a country with 100 plus nuclear weapons, which has rising violence across the country everyday. Karachi is a bloodbath now, day after day and nobody knows the future of this place. The two countries that will be the most affected by the internal developments in Pakistan are India and the United States.”

“Post-US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, it was imperative that contingency planning -- the most private possible contingency planning is called for as we watch these events unfold.”

“Until the Pakistani military and ISI change their view that they have to be the preeminent power in Afghanistan, India is the enemy,” Blackwill said. He reiterated the importance of how Indians and the Americans manage it together, not surprise each other as they go forward, especially with the difficult transition, post-US troop withdrawal.

He pointed out that India’s equities are now deeply engaged in Afghanistan and the danger is that the next front of India-Pakistan confrontation will happen in Afghanistan. That is the danger in the context of the American withdrawal.

“This is a necessity for the two governments to talk about it in the most intimate possible way and I hope that will begin when Vice President (Joe) Biden goes (to India) and the Prime Minister (Dr Manmohan Singh) comes here (to Washington in the fall). It is so important, that every week we have to talk about it,” said Blackwill.

Blackwill said he had absolutely no doubts that once the American troops leave Afghanistan, the Pushtun areas of Afghanistan will quickly be re-conquered by the Taliban. “The question will be when Kandahar falls, when does Kabul fall, and this all will be very difficult for the US-India relationship to manage,” he said.

“When this happens, he predicted, the national security elite, the government, the major press (in India) will be tempted to blame it on the United States.”

Earlier, he along with another former US envoy to India, Frank Wisner, lamented that the Obama administration had not kept India fully apprised about the US troop withdrawal plans, and New Delhi had to learn about it from CNN and David Sanger of the New York Times, who wrote that Washington was considering a zero option -- no troops at all to be left behind in Afghanistan.

Blackwill said that while US ambassadors are not in charge of American foreign policy, the consensus among envoys to India was always, “please do not surprise the Indians. We all said that. We are happy to go and tell them what it is you (the White House) decided, but don’t surprise them.”

He said, “I am anxious about this because we had an exemplary period of about four years where US-India consultations on Afghanistan were absolutely terrific. It’s not terrific now,” and warned, “This is potentially poisonous in our bilateral relationship.”

Wisner said, “What troubles me, I don’t see the US and India sitting down very frankly with one another and figuring out what we can do, as opposed to what we like to think the other could do.”

He argued that both sides should discuss “what practically can be done -- what role can India play as a bridge-builder to others that can contain the Afghan problem.”

Wisner predicted, “It’s going to be civil war in Afghanistan, and so how to you contain that. That’s where I want to see the dialogue get quite precise and where the (Secretary of State John) Kerry, Biden, and Manmohan Singh exchanges be very clear about what each of us can and what the limitations are about what we can do.”

Another erstwhile envoy to India, Richard Celeste, echoed similar sentiments, and agreed with Wisner about the importance of “a very candid discussion between the US and India about our expectations about Afghanistan and I haven’t seen much evidence that that’s going on.”

Former Ambassador Tim Roemer, warned that it ‘gets even more complicated’ that in addition to the dangers cited by Blackwill “because you don’t want that engagement between India and Pakistan to be due to a terrorist attack -- due to Lakshar-e-Tayiba coming down and attacking India like the Mumbai incident in 2008.’

He called for not just more discussions between India and the US on strategies for a post-US troop withdrawal Afghanistan but more cooperation in counter-terrorism, intelligence-sharing, “how do we try to help India prevent that kind of attack so India and Pakistan don’t fight each other.”

Aziz Haniffa Washington DC