Sunday, November 30, 2008

South Asian Tango

For obvious reasons of loss of life and disruption in economic life, India would like to avoid repetition of this week’s Mumbai massacre at all cost. More such attacks for a year or two, the whole edifice and foundation of Indian State will crack. Along with India, USA has strong vested interests to avoid such terrorist attacks in South Asia. USA has still not completely wiped out the original perpetrators of terrorism from Afghanistan and would not like a new crop of terrorists. As long as there is Terrorism, USA is in danger. Except China to a certain extent, rest of the world is also vested in seeing peaceful and prosperous India. Strong and stable India anchoring South Asia and Indian Ocean is the lynch pin of global stability.

Task is cut out for Indian Political Parties to recognize and deal firmly the growing participation of local Muslim folks in these terrorist acts. Indian PM Singh is on record saying that current spate of terrorism is also contributed by home grown Islamic militancy; it is not all Pakistani element which are undertaking these terrorist acts as like in past. The question is whether the built in political competition made possible by Indian democracy helps or hinders this process of dealing militant Islam within India. So far Congress party has not shown any such capability and BJP with Narendra Modi shows all the sign of further damaging this process by potentially incarnating Godhra all over India. Indian Media, international criticism and domestic political pressure all are expected to make changes in political behavior. If it does not happen, India would miss on the first task of basic governance and all bets will be off.

The parties to watch are Congress and Mulayam’s SP. Will these parties be smart enough to exploit quite likely temptation of BJP to ‘over play’ the terrorism card in advocating jingoistic policies while being more strict in dealing Muslim extremists? This is what is expected from Dr. Singh and Congress.

Externally, the situation is quite complex. While Indian Political Parties undertake all the necessary administrative reforms to deal with Terrorism (federal level terrorism investigation agency, National Security Guard available all over India within a short notice and so on); the other permanent component of terrorism – logistic support extended by Pakistani Army & ISI to terrorist – needs to be addressed too. Without that, South Asia will continue to burn.

If Pakistan were a normal country, international pressure on Pakistan would induce behavioral changes. In absence of that, we have rival power centers in Pakistan typically at odds to each other –Parliament with elected politicians and Pakistani Army with control of nuclear weapons. Elected politicians are effectively powerless in stopping and controlling kinds of terrorist attacks which are happening in India. In the competitive dynamics of Pakistan, more real power Pakistani Army cedes to elected politicians; more is the danger of terrorist attacks in India which helps to assert Army’s primacy.

So the key actor is Pakistani Army with their control on nuke buttons. Contention is if territorial integrity of Pakistan is guaranteed, one of the institutional reasons of Pakistani Army will be fulfilled. For all we know, Pakistani Army is still smarting over the real institutional loss in the war of 1971 when that Army lost the territory to a new country, Bangladesh. Further, if Kashmir problem is addressed by converting current ‘line of control’ into ‘internationally accepted border’; another of Pakistani Army’s goal will be realized, albeit in truncated form. Then finally it is about the pressure exerted by India in being strategically involved with Afghanistan. Suppose for a minute India vacates that strategic sphere of influence. All of this would result in Pakistani Army achieving their institutional goals. Once that has happened, the ceding power to civilian Pakistani government is feasible. Obviously this all is possible only if USA is actively involved in all these geopolitical process. Not only that, USA will further have to cajole and prod Pakistani Civilian government to continue to provide the basic governance, stability and prosperity to Pakistani people. Only by such dual process the transformation of Pakistan from an Army dominated state to a normal nation state responding to established ways and means of international norms and pressures is possible.

These are all ‘carrots’ for Pakistani Army. What is the stick? If Pakistani Army even after all these inducements still does not respond, then the territorial integrity of Pakistan is on the table. No doubt, the risk of escalating standard warfare to a nuclear conflict is there. But nationalistic forces in India and even Indian public at large would finally come to take that risk if there are no reciprocal changes by Pakistani Army. For sure, common Indian would accept the risk of nuclear war when even after forfeiting claims on full Kashmiri land; Mumbai style terror attacks do not stop. The question then will be whether Pakistani Army will be ready for more Bangladesh style defeats. Assumption is Pakistani Army is a ‘rational’ player responding to standard political ‘sticks and carrots’.

The deal which Congress and Secular parties of India will have to sale to their people is in vacating sphere of strategic influence in Afghanistan and accepting status quo in Kashmir as the permanent state of affairs; India gets peace and no terror attacks.

For USA, getting involved in all this means surely bit of diversion from the stated goal of wiping out Al Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan. But that is not so and the encouraging sign with Obama is he realizes this as the case. Once core ‘insecurities’ of Pakistani Army are addressed; chances of that Army coming on board to root out Taliban are realistic. USA can go one step further and try to cement relationship between these two countries by guarantying each one’s territorial integrity and peaceful existence; if required by weaving an international treaty of NATO / USA, Afghanistan and Pakistan. One such solid block will also help USA to negate influence of China in that area as well as help USA to have bulk work on both sides of Iran.

The end result of all these maneuvers over years should manifest in an international treaty with no nuke attack between Pakistan, India and possibly with China (as far as South Asia goes) underwritten by USA.

The losers along this road will be independent Kashmiri aspirations and bit constrained sphere of influence for India. But after all these years of instability, centuries worth of ‘cartographic’ mess; peace is not going to come by yet another new country or drastic redrawing of maps. And as far as India goes, any sane person would buy the consequent ‘peace’ by trading orthodox geopolitical influences; because the prosperity which will result due to this peace will ‘rocket’ India well past all the constraints it faces now. Tomorrow’s brave new world is such that orthodox ‘spheres of influence’ would continue to give away for the power of wealth and ideas. India has all the ingredients and foundations to succeed along these lines. The challenge for USA is to make this all happen knowing well China may not be very enthusiastic about all this. The question is will Obama Administration use the leverages offered by ‘Chinmerica’ economy to this end. With current weaker economy, American may not have this leverage today; but as American economy takes steps to come out of the ditch; Obama Administration will gain sufficient leverage to persuade China to be at least a neutral party. Of course, Tibet and Taiwan are other two cards to play if need arises which however seems unlikely.

In short, the task is cut for Obama Administration to walk the talk of making South Asia as the focus. After last week’s incidents in Mumbai, it is clear that ‘fight against terrorism’ got to douse these fires in India. If it means bringing all the big guns like Bill Clinton along with Hillary at the helm of State Department so be the case. Time is running out.

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