Fresh thinking

The visit by the Afghan president Hamid Karzai to Delhi next week has been in the making and it is primarily to participate in a public function where he is slated to deliver a memorial lecture. Nonetheless, its timing will be noted with more than a little curiosity in the region and beyond.

The visit is taking place at a time when the regional security situation has acquired an unparalleled acuteness. Afghanistan is on razor’s edge. The intricate ten-year old waltz in the Hindu Kush between the United States and Pakistan looks more like a deathly dance than a love fest.

The US is taking a moral high ground, alleging that Pakistan consorts with forces of darkness. The actual dispute is regarding the lordship over the Haqqani group, which is credited with the maximum firepower and fighting caliber among all of the Taliban movement. The US claims it has finally discovered that the Haqqani group acts at Pakistan’s bidding.

But then Haqqanis were the blue-eyed boys of the US intelligence during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s and the legend goes that Ronald Reagan once received Jalaluddin Haqqani in the White House. Jalaluddin was, perhaps, the only ‘field commander’ who was directly patronised by the US intelligence despite Zia-ul-Haq’s rigorous ground rule that US dealings with the Afghan Mujahideen were to be routed through the ISI.

Why, therefore, such ruckus over the Haqqanis today? The core issue is that the US wants Pakistan to step aside so that it can once again directly deal with the Haqqanis. The US intelligence has infiltrated many Taliban groups but the Haqqanis apparently remain aloof – despite US overtures – and the harsh truth is that without them on board, no peace process – leave alone strategic agreement on US military bases – is worth the paper it is written on.

There is great frustration in Washington that its efforts to talk directly with the Taliban have run into a cul-de-sac. Meanwhile, the timeline for the US withdrawal is drawing closer by the day and the much-touted ‘surge’ by Pentagon has dissipated. The heart of the matter is that the US and Pakistani objectives in an Afghan settlement were never quite converging and all the American talk during the past decade that Pakistan’s ‘legitimate interests’ will be respected in any Afghan settlement and that Pakistan will enjoy a key role in the making of a settlement have turned out to be hogwash.

Viewed from the Pakistani side, it harbours a profound sense of betrayal in Pakistan. The suspicion has become rooted in the Pakistani mind regarding the US’ intentions insofar as the covert activities of the US intelligence within Pakistan (while being its ally and the ISI’s interlocutor) are out in the open following the Raymond Davis affair in March this year. Pakistan-US relationship began seriously deteriorating since then.

Regional security

Things have deteriorated to a point that the unthinkable is being talked about – a possible US military strike at Pakistan, ostensibly aimed at the Haqqani sanctuaries in Waziristan. A dangerous flashpoint has arisen for regional security. In many ways, this is a replay of the Cambodian tragedy four decades ago when facing defeat in Indo-China, US lashed out.

Richard Nixon’s stunning words in his nationally-telecast address on April 30, 1970 come to mind: “To protect our men who are in Vietnam and to guarantee the continued success of our withdrawal and Vietnamisation programmes, I have concluded that the time has come for action.” The logic was the same: Nixon had announced a ‘drawdown’ of US troops from Vietnam and Cambodia which was allegedly harbouring communist guerillas. Nixon claimed the US incursion was “to clean out major enemy sanctuaries on the Cambodian-Vietnam border.”

Of course, Pakistan is not Cambodia. Yet, in political terms, any US military strike on Pakistan may trigger convulsions that turn out to be no less catastrophic than the rise of Pol Pot in Cambodia. The Cambodian incursion couldn’t salvage the Vietnam War and neither would an incursion into Pakistan stave off the US’ impending defeat in Afghanistan.

What concerns India most is the horrendous prospect of the region getting irredeemably radicalised if the US does something as stupid as attacking Pakistan. India cannot hope to insulate itself from the resultant regional instability. Karzai’s visit is an occasion for Delhi to put its mind on a ‘fast-forward’ mode. Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Gilani visited him in Kabul only a week ago.

Delhi will be doing the right thing to distance itself from the US’s reckless, dangerous course. Equally, external affairs minister S M Krishna seems to have struck the right cord with his Pakistani counterpart Hina Rabbani Khar. Indeed, in her address at the UN General Assembly, Khar carried forward the nascent tendency toward new thinking in Pakistan’s regional policies. At any rate, it was inconceivable until recently that a visiting Pakistani cabinet minister would call for the normalisation of India-Pakistan trade relations from the Ball Room of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai where Pakistani terrorists gunned down 34 people in 2008.  

No matter what it takes, India should ensure that another round of civil war doesn’t erupt in Afghanistan. Karzai merits strong support and solidarity from India and we should join Pakistan in urging Karzai that the national reconciliation should continue despite recent setback. Most important, the time may ripe for a regional initiative.

(The writer is a former diplomat)  

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