An unseen passenger would have travelled in the special aircraft ferrying the “all-party delegation” to Srinagar on Monday [September 20]. The distinguished parliamentarians might not have noticed the American's discreet presence. He came straight from a fateful conclave in a five-star hotel in Islamabad last Wednesday. For the first time in the 60-year post-colonial history of our region, the political and military leadership of the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan sat together under a chandelier in Islamabad to choreograph a new security architecture for the region and it was a dazzling display of American influence in our part of the world.
A momentous chapter in regional politics is unfolding as the nine-year-old Afghan war slouched toward a denouement. Kashmir cannot remain unaffected when such a phenomenal tectonic shift in the regional balance of power gets under way. The narrative could as well have been plucked out of Henry Kissinger's immutable magna opera on the politics of power, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace . The Islamabad conclave was every bit about the reconciliation of turbulent relationships, matching of differing concerns of respective countries and the changing nature of diplomacy that is needed to influence the final shape of peace.
Pakistan brokered brilliantly to bring the U.S. and the Taliban to the vicinity of a settlement. The picture that emerges is that in a near future the 1,00,000 U.S. troops would stop fighting and dying in the Taliban's Pashtun strongholds in the south and east in a futile counter-insurgency operation and would thin out to relocate to the predominantly non-Pashtun regions in the north and west. The U.S's “combat mission” will end and what remains will be a few thousand troops (like in Iraq) to ensure that the affiliates of al-Qaeda do not regroup.
The U.S. can deploy air power or the special forces if an odd al-Qaeda fellow pops up somewhere while the Afghan army will incrementally come on stream. The end of bloodshed will remove the war from being a domestic political haemorrhage for the Barack Obama administration. At the same time, it will be a geopolitical coup insofar as the U.S. military presence in Central Asia will be put on a long-term footing, which, in turn, enables the U.S. to effectively pursue its global strategies in terms of the containment of China and Iran, the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation as a real-time provider of security for the Central Asian states and the perpetuation of the western dominance over the oil-rich Middle East, which is under growing challenge.
To be sure, for all this to happen the U.S. will depend on Pakistan's cooperation in the stabilisation of the southern and eastern regions. Indeed, the Taliban is under heavy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) influence and the Pakistani military too has a stake in stabilising the Durand Line on a durable basis so that it can pay adequate attention to the eastern borders facing India.
There is a question mark regarding the political future of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He is expected to cede to the Taliban the southern and eastern regions and the U.S.-Pakistani deal places him in a precarious position vis-à-vis the unforgiving Pakistani generals. His dash to Islamabad on Wednesday and his joint meeting with the Pakistani army chief Pervez Kayani and the U.S. commander David Petraeus tells a sad story by itself. Indeed, Mr. Karzai has to walk a tight rope calibrating the Afghan aspirations of independence and sovereignty when there is an overflow of adrenaline through the Pakistani veins, having come so close to realising “strategic depth”. Can Mr. Karzai count on no-holds-barred U.S. backing? Most certainly, not. Washington has its own national interests vis-à-vis the Pakistani military leadership. Washington will not want to squander away the excellent chemistry between the Pentagon and Mr. Kayani for which it worked hard.
India's regional policy, too, finds itself at a crossroads. The cementing of the U.S.-Pakistani axis in Afghanistan cannot but affect Indian interests and it leaves a lousy feeling of being let down by the Americans. However, it should be left to historians to dispassionately judge whether the Americans really did lead the Indians up the garden path. Or, was it a matter of the Indian diplomacy having been needlessly supine in the critical years between 2001-2006? If you submit as a doormat, others are bound to see you that way.
Be that as it may, New Delhi will still place hope that the U.S. acts as a “moderating influence” on the Pakistani military. It is always good to hope. In ideal conditions, the U.S.'s moderating influence could work in three directions: a) India has legitimate interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan cannot exercise a veto over it; b) the ISI should not use the Taliban-held regions as sanctuaries and training camps for terrorists operating against India; and, c) Pakistan should dismantle its own terrorist infrastructure and opt for settlement of differences through dialogue.
The reasonableness of the Indian case is certainly not in doubt. But then, life is real. The U.S. will be foolish to spend out of its capital of goodwill with the Pakistani military. Look at it this way. The settlement in Afghanistan strengthens the U.S's standing in the region but, paradoxically, it also makes the U.S. strategies in the downstream predicated on the Pakistani military delivering on the stabilisation of the Afghan situation. The equation, you may say, is a serious one for Washington's future strategies. Put simply, Taliban is the best-organised Afghan group today, the creation of a viable Afghan national army is a long haul, and Pakistan can create mayhem in Kabul if it chooses to be a spoiler.
Arguably, U.S. airpower and special forces may deliver shock and awe but wars are ultimately won and lost on the ground and it is inconceivable that the U.S. troops would return to a combat mission in Afghanistan. The Taliban can comprehend the paradigm; the Pakistani military leadership knows it; and the U.S. knows that the two protagonists know it. In sum, therefore, the Pakistani military will be holding the Afghan settlement by its jugular for the foreseeable future. Not that the Pakistani military will necessarily opt for strategic defiance of the U.S. Why should it kill the goose that lays the golden egg? The Americans are good paymasters and Pakistan needs a lot of money these days to simply to stay afloat.
The most crucial variable for Delhi is that the U.S. too would have expectations of India's good conduct in Afghanistan. It is all-too delicate an issue but India can no more stall the Pakistani demand for the closure of our consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar. Nor is the U.S. going to plead our case. Much depends on whether Delhi is prepared to work with Washington's Asia-Pacific enterprise. In anticipation, the pro-U.S. lobby and the Indian middlemen for Americans arms manufacturers are already on overdrive expounding bizarre theses — India should prepare for wars on two fronts simultaneously, Indian armed forces deserve better civilian leadership, etc. These lobbyists and commission agents are tirelessly drumming up a war psychosis and Sinophobia in order to pedal their case that Delhi should embrace all-round military cooperation with the U.S. and work with the American global strategies. These bellboys have unabashedly become stakeholders in creating xenophobia and in keeping the nation's nerves on edge at a time when no one with a modicum of sanity would say India faces threat of armed aggression. Today India is a major military power already with near-Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability. And India's security challenges are internal.
The commission agents of U.S. arms manufacturers salivate over kickbacks but where do our national interests lie? We can't be “coolies” in the U.S.'s Asia-Pacific enterprise as it imperils our normalisation with China and will inevitably trigger a cold war in our region that sidetracks the priorities of development. Besides, we simply can't appease the American manufacturers by atrophying the time-tested friendship with Russia since if the push comes to the shove on Kashmir, whereas the U.S. position remains ambivalent (although we unilaterally insist on interpreting it to be in our favour), we may need to shout across the Himalayas to our Russian friend. Most important, the U.S.-Pakistan axis is pivotal for the U.S. regional strategies in Central Asia and in a not-too-distant future Mr. Kayani will seek his pound of flesh on Kashmir. The Intifada unfolding in the Valley has diverse moorings and the killing of innocents may well turn out to be a sideshow in the 20-year deadly game that is far from played out.
The political reality is that Pakistan has escalated its rhetoric on Kashmir. The government's invitation to China to invest in the development of J&K indeed underscores our growing sense of awareness. We need to carefully measure the timeline available to normalise the J&K situation. A regime change in Srinagar is not the priority today. Politicising the crisis will be a most irresponsible thing to do.
( The writer is a former diplomat .)