His Af, our Pak

Just when the three basic postulates of India's post-Cold War geostrategic position were becoming established comes the game-changer. How does India prepare to live, and protect its interests, in a neighbourhood which is now not only the playground of the world — but where the leader of the world has also given himself a deadline for retreat?

In the history of warfare, conventional or unconventional, nobody has ever won by announcing a deadline before deployment. That's what Obama has now done. The Taliban will be telling their hordes, all they have to do is hunker down and survive in the mountains for just 18 months. All they need to tell other, moderate or pro-American, Afghans is: you've just got 18 months. After that, we will deal with you — or you now start dealing with us. And Afghans are pragmatic people when it comes to deal-making. You'd have to be that way if you live in such a brutal place, where the only national industry and employment for two millennia has been fighting wars. As usual, a humorist has put it more accurately and cruelly: Jay Leno said this week, with a straight face, that Obama has announced he will bring his troops back after 18 months — and the Taliban announced they will continue fighting for just 19 months.

Jokes apart, where does this leave India? We had just got used to the idea of having active American military presence in our neighbourhood when they tell the world two more things. One, that they intend to build a new state in Afghanistan, change the nature of state and society in Pakistan. And second, that they intend to achieve this in 18 months and return home. We are a civilisation and neighbourhood where wars last generations. So July 2011 looks closer here than it would in Washington DC. Look at it this way: it would come just about the time West Bengal goes for the assembly polls.

There are three pillars of India's post-Cold War foreign-strategic policy doctrine: one, that India's territories must not shrink any further, while it has no appetite for expansion; two, that India's freedom of stockpiling, control and doctrine over its strategic nuclear assets must remain undiminished; and three, that there should be no challenge to India's preeminence in its immediate neighbourhood. It is that last pillar that is now shaky.

First of all, the coalition that has now been built to fight the "bad" jehadis in Afghanistan is a lot more global than the one put together to fight alongside the "good" jehadis in 1979. This is no Great Game or Cold War sideshow, and there is no balance-of-power. Second, we have as big a stake as others — in some way even bigger than Washington — that Obama does not return from Kabul a loser. And third, which is the most significant, the Global Afghan Project-II is fundamentally different from the first, because a "fixing" of the Pakistani state is integral to it. While all three may be the source of some anxiety to us, the last one brings some opportunity as well.

Concern, because changing the nature of Pakistani state and society, or in other words, democratising a 14-crore-plus population that is deeply Islamic, fiercely nationalist, insecure and suspicious, and has tasted many freedoms of democracy, howsoever faulty, is a formidable challenge. And America's experience and expertise so far lie in propping up and sustaining dictatorships. They may be spending billions on democratising now, but in their hearts they must pine for a Musharraf. Makes life much simpler. There is no way they can achieve success within 18 months, particularly when their very presence is such an irritant to most Pakistanis. And if they think they will continue working in Pakistan after their military pull out from Afghanistan, they are being optimistic. And opportunity, because, should they succeed, won't it be just what we have been wishing for decades, but never had the resources or traction to achieve? Particularly since the era of Islamisation, with the Zia takeover, began? Every million dollars that the Americans spend taking Pakistani scholars, soldiers, NGO activists, opinion leaders, journalists, parliamentarians to Western institutions to strengthen and widen the base of a new, liberal and democratic elite in Pakistan is a million invested in our future. Nothing will serve our interests better than a stable, prospering, democratic Pakistan, at peace with

itself, looking inwards, and focusing its energies on its own growth, and competing with us economically. Beggar-my-neighbour may be a tempting thought each time a big terror attack takes place. But big, serious nations do not run a foreign policy for cheap thrills.

That is why, while we build roads, schools and the parliament building in Afghanistan, we must also make our own contribution to the larger project by changing our approach to Pakistan and coming out of this permanent post-26/11 sulk. We need to engage with its democratic establishment, with all its imperfections and all the irritating verbosity of some of its leaders. The 26/11 investigations, Headley revelations and now Robert Gates' statement have left no doubt that what we are fighting is more than just the ISI. While the Pakistani establishment may still nurse LeT as a likely strategic asset, the use-by date on that is now over. And it is not because they have got scared of us, or of the prospect of an Indian bombing of Muridke if another attack takes place. It is because the rest of the world — not just America — will never accept such nuancing. Those times will not even return after 18 months, irrespective of whether Obama returns a loser or victor or, as is most likely, goes to his Congress and asks for more time.

Our biggest worry will be if he returns a loser, or in haste by claiming a partial success as victory. The situation we would then be left with will be like that of a patient who the surgeon has left unstitched on the operation table. Our policy has to work to ensure that does not happen, and if it does, to build the strength to deal with not one, but two debris states next door. Until then, we also have to accept living in our region with our preeminence deeply curtailed.

If Obama wins, we win. If he loses, we have to be strong enough to look after ourselves — because unlike him, we have no escape. He, indeed, will be watched closely by an increasingly unsure American population. What Jay Leno did this week was to underline an old Washington truism: it doesn't matter how much they abuse you in this city. But you've got to get worried when they start laughing at you.


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