/ 3 December 2008

US sharpens focus on South Asia’s Gordian Knot

The outgoing Bush administration was always going to leave president-elect Barack Obama with the problem of what to do about Pakistan, America’s conflicted ally in the war on terrorism.

That problem got bigger when Islamist militants, allegedly from Pakistan, butchered 171 people in an assault on the Indian city of Mumbai last week, providing a potential trigger for conflict between South Asia’s nuclear-armed rivals.

Pakistani security officials have warned that all their forces will be switched to the eastern border with India, leaving al-Qaeda and the Taliban free to roam on the Afghan border if a confrontation develops.

Indian analysts, however, say a military face-off is unlikely, given the high costs involved in such an action.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in New Delhi on Wednesday as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen flew into Islamabad on a mission to calm tempers.

”The US mediation effort shows that this might just spin out of control unless watched very carefully,” Samina Ahmed, the Islamabad-based South Asia project director for International Crisis Group, said.

”I think Obama has been taken into confidence. Rice has had several conversations with him. It is a difficult one for the new administration.”

Managing Pakistan is a foreign policy priority for the United States, with 32 000 US troops in Afghanistan and plans for more, and al-Qaeda leaders plotting their global jihad in Pakistani tribal lands on the Afghan border.

Obama knows that part of reason for the US failure to stabilise Afghanistan is because the Bush administration never fully got Pakistan’s support, for all its help in eliminating hundreds of al-Qaeda members.

Regional jig-saw
Obama has also hinted that he thinks a settlement between India and Pakistan over Kashmir is part of the equation.

”Peace in this region will pay dividends, will pay dividends for peace in Afghanistan and peace globally, the stakes are very high,” said Ahmed.

Pakistan’s support is needed to defeat al-Qaeda, and for military success against the Afghan insurgency and any political settlement between the government in Kabul and Taliban leaders.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has often said the Taliban leadership was based in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s western province of Baluchistan, and US commanders have said the insurgents’ command and control centres were in Pakistan.

Washington’s greatest leverage over a hard-up Islamabad is money. Only International Monetary Fund support last month has saved it from a balance of payments crisis.

Pakistan resists US pressure to more forcefully clean its house of militants by saying it could destabilise the country, as a wave of suicide attacks in the past two years has demonstrated.

Some analysts say it’s like negotiating with a country that points a gun at its own head.

Under this cover, analysts say, the Pakistani military has secretly maintained support for the Taliban in the hope of one day winning back some influence in Kabul.

What Pakistani generals most fear is encirclement, threatened by India’s friendship with both Karzai and old assets among factions in the anti-Pakistan Northern Alliance who hold key posts in the Afghan government.

They say India and Afghanistan are helping a separatist insurgency in Baluchistan and are stirring trouble in the tribal regions where al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban fighters have tied down the Pakistani army.

Analysts say this is payback for the proxy-wars Pakistan has run in Afghanistan through the Taliban and through jihadi organisations in Indian Kashmir.

”It’s very difficult to delink these respective problems — the situation in Baluchistan, the situation in Kashmir, and what is happening in Afghanistan as well,” said Thomas Withington an independent defence consultant and research associate at Kings College in London.

No peace, no war
India and the United States suspect a jihadi organisation, Lashkar-e-Taiba, of carrying out the attack on Mumbai.

The one captured gunman says the team was trained in Pakistan, according to Indian officials, leaving them wondering how deep any connection with the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency might be.

Lashkar was favoured by the ISI in the past, analysts say, though it was officially banned in 2002 and Pakistan has always maintained that it only gave moral and diplomatic support to Kashmiri freedom fighters.

India has already said it will be difficult to carry on with a four-year-old peace process that was slowly yielding results.

A combination of Indian caution and Pakistan’s domestic turmoil stopped more progress being made.

Diplomats say India and Pakistan had been on the cusp of settling territorial disputes over the Siachen Glacier in northern Kashmir, and the maritime boundary at Sir Creek in 2007, but nothing happened because former army chief Pervez Musharraf became engulfed by a political crisis that eventually was to cost him his presidency.

A senior member of the government that served under Musharraf said, on condition of anonymity, that the two sides had made progress through back-channel diplomacy for a political solution to the core dispute over Kashmir, but that was stalled too.

In the current highly charged environment it will be hard to keep the peace process alive let alone make headway, and Kashmir will remain a stumbling point between the two nations.

”I don’t see that realistically changing over the next five to 10 years, unless you have a lasting political settlement that all sides can accept, and I don’t see that happening in the current climate,” said Withington.

Obama and his chosen secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, will no doubt try to make it happen sooner.

Meantime, Rice has to persuade the Indian government not to do anything to destabilise a civilian government in Pakistan that could eventually be a partner in peace. – Reuters