Jan 13, 2009

World - America’s regional strategy takes off

M.K. Bhadrakumar

Washington’s regional strategy in Southwest Asia involves negotiating interlocking “grand bargains” that aim at pacifying Iraq and Afghanistan and restoring stability to the Greater Middle East.

Last week, Washington apparently showed India a big favour, “de-hyphenating” its relationship with Pakistan and India. The Nelson Report, the matchless daily chronicler of men and matters in Washington DC, reported on Monday that top diplomat Richard Holbrooke would be the new administration’s special envoy for India and Pakistan. The New York Times corroborated this information.

In the event, however, it seems Mr. Holbrooke will be special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan only — apart from “related regional issues.” From all appearances, the Barack Obama administration will not “hyphenate” India and Pakistan.

But Indian diplomacy needs to tread softly. Unfortunately, the UPA government’s overdependence on the U.S. to get Pakistan to bend a little on the Mumbai attacks complicates this task. We now know that “a lot” of the Indian dossier was prepared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation so that it looks “credible.” We also know that an FBI team has obtained visa to travel to Pakistan to continue the probe. Meanwhile, we remain focussed on the rhetoric while keeping an eagle’s eye on a day-to-day, hour-to-hour basis on any American politician, bureaucrat or soldier passing through Islamabad.

And we ponder: Has Islamabad bent a little? What keeps this tragi-comedy from descending into a farce is Mr. Holbrooke’s appointment. It is plain common sense that any “related regional issues” connected with Pakistan that form part of Mr. Holbrooke’s brief will inevitably include India-Pakistan relations, including the “core issue” of Kashmir.

Therefore, leaving aside the diplomatic quibbling about the semantics of “de-hyphenation,” one has to be truly moronic to miss out on the U.S.’ so-called regional strategy towards the war on terror in Afghanistan, which is crystallising even as the transition is set to begin in Washington with President-elect Obama contemplating his options in the swathe of land that Americans call Southwest Asia but stretches westward to the Mediterranean as well, forming the so-called Greater Middle East that includes the vast geo-strategic landscape from the Levant to Central Asia.

What is the regional strategy? Quintessentially, it involves negotiating a matrix of interlocking “grand bargains” between the U.S. and relevant regional players that aim at pacifying Iraq and Afghanistan and restoring stability to the Greater Middle East, which in turn, would help to reduce a financial drain of $15 billion a month the U.S. incurs on the two wars and help bring down the hostility of the world’s one billion Muslims towards the U.S. In an address at the Washington Convention Centre last Friday, General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, summed up: “We have to demonstrate [our] commitment to sustain comprehensive, coordinated approaches and build and execute a regional strategy that includes Pakistan, India, the Central Asian states and even the army in Russia along with, some day, perhaps at some point, Iran.”

The “grand bargain” in its application to the Afghan situation first sailed into view with all guns blazing in the by-now famous Foreign Affairs article in November by regional experts Ahmed Rashid and Barnett Rubin, whom, of course, Gen. Petraeus consulted. Their axiom is that the co-relation of the Afghan problem with the international system has changed and Afghanistan is no longer a buffer state, which historically separated conflicts but is now linking them. Proceeding from this, they questioned the efficacy of the traditional notions of the key elements of stability in the Hindu Kush devolving upon a mere concord among the big powers not to interfere inside Afghanistan or exploit Afghanistan’s weaknesses in their great game so that their contestation of the Afghan state remains minimal while a neutralised, demobilised Afghanistan serves as a buffer.

Today, the experts argue, the restraining rules of the great game in the Hindu Kush have given way to a virtual importation of innumerable regional and sectarian conflicts into Afghanistan, which make the restoration of its status as a buffer state unrealisable. Therefore, it is impossible to solve the Afghan problem without solving the international issues that are linked to the conflict in the Hindu Kush. These issues have been identified principally as the “war on terror,” India-Pakistan tensions, Shia-Sunni conflict, future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, U.S.-Russia relations and the U.S.-Iran standoff.

From the Indian perspective, the “grand bargain” involves high-level diplomatic initiative by the U.S. to address the “legitimate sources of Pakistan’s insecurity,” which of course requires India to be brought in to provide the necessary assurances. At the same time, on a parallel track, Saudi Arabia will finesse the Taliban to give up its ties with the al-Qaeda and become part of a coalition government in Kabul.

It stretches credulity that the U.S. actually believes in such an ethereal hypothesis. But then, why is it being pedalled so systematically? In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Defence Secretary Robert M. Gates gives an intellectual construct to the regional strategy against the backdrop of the U.S.’ emergent compulsions in the global system. With disarming candour, he admits that the “defining principle” of the U.S. strategy is “balance.” Much as some form of U.S. presence will continue in Iraq “for years to come” and considering that to fail or to be seen as failing is not an option in Afghanistan (as it would be a “disastrous blow” to the U.S.’ credibility among both friends and allies and among potential adversaries), Washington must “set priorities and consider inescapable tradeoffs and opportunity costs,” Dr. Gates wrote. Given the imperatives of the war on terror — “grim reality, a prolonged, worldwide irregular campaign” — and the growing financial constraints of sustaining higher defence budgets, the U.S. needs to be pragmatic.

Dr. Gates acknowledges that the U.S. is unlikely to “repeat another Iraq or Afghanistan … anytime soon,” but that is not the point. The fact of the matter is that the U.S. cannot take its global military dominance for granted, although it is sustainable for the medium term as per current trends. “Both Russia and China have increased their defense spending and modernization programmes to include air defense and fighter capabilities that in some cases approach the United States’ own.”

Again, Russia and China “may be unwilling to challenge the United States fighter to fighter, ship to ship, tank to tank. But they are developing the disruptive means to blunt the impact of U.S. power, narrow the United States’ military options, and deny the U.S. military freedom of movement and action.” Dr. Gates singles out China as an ascendant state with the potential to compete with the U.S., whose investments in cyberwarfare, anti-satellite warfare, anti-aircraft and anti-ship weaponry, submarines and ballistic missiles could “threaten the United States’ primary means to project its power…[and] put a premium on the United States’ ability to strike from over the horizon and employ missile defenses.”

Indeed, the U.S.’ 2008 National Defence Strategy underscores the need for “local partnerships” for hedging preceisely against Russia and China’s military modernisation and the impact of their strategic choices upon international security. It emphasises building the capacities of a broad spectrum of local partners as the basis of the U.S.’ long-term security. The NDS cited India as a prime example of one such “growing partnerships” within which the U.S. intended to pursue its global interests.

Thus it is obvious where the U.S. “regional strategy” in Afghanistan is leading to. Plainly put, it is integral to the U.S. winning the long war for global dominance in the 21st century. It is sheer sophistry to say Afghanistan is “linking” regional conflicts such as Kashmir. The regional strategy provides the context for the U.S. to undertake what the NDS calls “efforts to understand and address the grievances that often lie at the heart of insurgencies.” It acts like a crossbar with which the U.S. can lever regional tensions and extract geopolitical advantage.

The choice of a tough negotiator to address the “related regional issues” in South Asia is significant. Most people know Mr. Holbrooke as the brilliant master of ceremonies in the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. But less known is the fact that he is a co-founder — along with James Woolsey, former CIA Director, and Dennis Ross, former special Middle East coordinator in the Clinton administration — of a group called United Against Nuclear Iran, which propagates Israel’s apocalyptic vision of Iran. In The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Holbrooke wrote in September last, “Iran is a deadly and irresponsible world actor, employing terrorist organizations including Hezbollah and Hamas to undermine the existing regimes and foment conflict.”

Fasten seat belts, Southwest Asians. Air pockets lie ahead. All the more reason why the UPA government should not put all its eggs in the American basket to end the impasse over the Mumbai attacks.

(The writer is a former ambassador and Indian Foreign Service officer.)

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