Strategic changes in South and Southeast Asia favour India
Jun 16, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
It seems like a US and a Pakistani President were close enough to call each other close friends was something that happened ages ago. The Bush-Moshraff era when the two were just one phone call away from each other has now faded into distant history. In Chicago, during the NATO Summit last month, President Barak Obama could not spare even a minute for the Pakistani President Asif Zardari when the exchanges between the two were few inaudible courtesies.
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta underscored the utter depth to which US-Pakistan relations have fallen in recent times when he went on an unscheduled trip to Kabul from his official destination of New Delhi early this month. There, he said that his country was losing patience with Pakistan because of its continued indulgence to the terror groups, in particular the dangerous Haqqani network that Admiral Mike Mullen had called a “veritable arm” of Pakistan’s ISI in a Congressional briefing last year. It is not just this terse statement that signified that the two countries are falling apart; USA’s recent overtures towards Pakistan’s nemesis India is what is pointing not to just the parting of ways between two erstwhile allies but that the parting is going to be unfortunate for Pakistan.
The Americans and the Pakistanis have been falling apart ever since the US Navy Seals killed OBL in May last year by keeping Pakistan’s government and military in darkness in practically the backyard of its most prestigious military installation in Abbotabad, the Kakul Military Academy. The American action humiliated the country’s proud military at home and abroad. The continuous drone attacks by the Americans in Pakistan’s impregnable northwest bordering Afghanistan in pursuit of Al Qaeda without keeping Pakistan informed have further eroded trust and partnership between the two. The Pakistanis see in these drone attacks and the operation that killed OSB as direct infringement on the country’s sovereignty.
The US attack in Salala in November was another major turning point in the breakdown of relationship. The attack killed 24 innocent Pakistanis including women and children. The Pakistanis, simmering in discontent, went ahead and stopped the critical supply line to US and NATO troops through Pakistan. That has put a spanner upon the smooth transition of withdrawal of US/NATO troops by 2014 because the period up to the withdrawal would be of supreme significance for the allied troops to make their final thrust to push the resurgent Taliban from making a bid for power.
At the NATO Summit in Chicago in May, the US and NATO powers failed to encourage Pakistan to open the route. Pakistan demanded a “blackmail” price to do so; an increase from US$ 250 to US$ 5000 per container. The alternative route, the Northern Distribution Network is as expensive as the new price that Pakistan is demanding. The latest stance that the US has taken seems that it has either lost patience with Pakistan or it has a new strategy in mind to lessen its dependence on its now seems like its “former” ally. In fact, the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi , Al Qaeda’s number 2, through another of the controversial drone attacks last week suggests that the US is looking beyond Pakistan to end its occupation of Afghanistan.
In fact, the US President hinted at that strategy last year when on a visit to Australia, he called his country a Pacific power. Recently at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore of Asian Defense Ministers, Leon Panetta explained explicitly what he and US leaders have been saying recently; a significant rearrangements of US Navy’s overseas presence. Panetta said that by 2020, 60% of US Navy’s presence overseas would be in Pacific and East Asia. Clearly, the US is making this strategic shift with China as the “pivot”. Significantly, the Chinese Defense Minister was absent at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
In proposing to make East Asia and Pacific its new focus of worldwide naval presence as part of the “China syndrome”, the US of course has allayed the fears of its traditional allies such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, Thailand The new and important addition to this traditional nexus with common fear in China is India that the US is now aggressively wooing with India responding to US overtures positively. Before the US Defense Secretary was in New Delhi, the US Secreteray of State was there. Pakistan has watched these visits closely. It was what Panetta said in New Delhi was particularly worrying to Pakistan.
In his meetings with Indian leaders, Defense Secretary Panetta said that the US would like India to become more involved in Afghanistan, especially after the US and NATO withdraws their combat troops to assist an Afghan Government trying to stand on its own. The involvement of India in Afghanistan is something that Pakistanis do not want if they can get their way. In fact, it has always insisted when its going was good with the US that India should be kept out to the possible extent from Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, the Indians have been present in Afghanistan on a bilateral basis with the Government of Hamid Karzai. It has already provided US$ 2 billion in assistance, in critical areas of economic development. This time, a direct request to the Indians to become more involved in Afghanistan is coming in the wake of the new strategic partnership that the US and India are building in Asia. In building this new partnership, the US is abandoning its hitherto pursued policy of paying due heed to Pakistan’s sensitivities vis-à-vis India. In fact, the US is using the excuse of its impatience with Pakistan to move more towards India even on issues that are not linked to terrorism but rooted in rivalries between the two countries. India that always wanted a foothold in Afghanistan for dealing with Pakistan from its western frontier is now being welcomed to achieve its strategic wish.
Meanwhile, the killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi has weakened the Al Qaeda further in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. In fact, the terrorist outfit has moved its headquarter from Afghanistan to Yemen that should mean less worry for the US in the Pakistan-Afghanistan region. This has encouraged the US to feel that they are leaving Afghanistan with the threat from the Al Qaeda in launching terrorist attacks on USA soil from Afghanistan that had taken them and allied forces there, tackled.
Sadly, Pakistan today finds itself in the same situation it had faced with its alliance with the US in the 1980s in fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets had to be stopped in US’ interest not Pakistan’s. Pakistan got sucked into the war for lures of money and paid badly for it. When Soviet Union disintegrated, the US withdrew even without saying good bye leaving Pakistan to deal with 2 million Afghan refugees all alone that has created for Pakistan the problems that it is facing today that are threatening its very existence.
What the US is doing in this second instance of dropping Pakistan as a hot potato is that it is not just abandoning Pakistan, it is doing so by strengthening the hands of the Indians both in terms of Pakistan-India relations as well as enhancing India’s stature in Asia in general and South Asia in particular. For Pakistan, the scenario surrounding the departure of the US from Afghanistan could not have been worse.
The writer is a retired career diplomat and former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt