Indo-US chill setting in, talk of even nuclear deal for Pak

Days ahead of Washington's Afghanistan-Pakistan envoy Richard Holbrooke's visit to New Delhi, a task force he set up and was a member of until he joined the Obama administration has called for a "dialogue" with Islamabad to "acknowledge its nuclear weapon status."

What will ring alarm bells here is that the New York-based Asia Society's Task Force report, released on a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, was the brainchild of Holbrooke. He and current US National Security Advisor Gen James Jones were active members of this task force until they took up their current government assignments.

Although there's a disclaimer in the report that Holbrooke and Jones cannot be associated with the content as they quit before the first draft was written, their contribution is applauded and acknowledged.

Taking note of IAEA DG Mohammed ElBaradei's remark in the context of the Indo-US nuclear deal that India, Israel and Pakistan are "not going to come to the NPT through the normal route," the task force suggests the idea of exploring ways to accommodate Pakistan.

"Under the existing circumstances, it is not possible to duplicate that agreement (Indo-US nuclear deal) with Pakistan, but it is worth starting a dialogue with Pakistan to explore what might be possible, and under what conditions, to acknowledge Pakistan's nuclear weapon status, provide assistance to ensure the safety and security of its nuclear assets, and bring Pakistan into greater conformity and close cooperation with the global non-proliferation regime."

This report, authored by Thomas Pickering (Ambassador to India 1992-93) and Barnett Rubin, comes at a time when, for all the warmth at the first substantive meeting between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President Barack Obama in London this week, a distinct chill is setting in Indo-US ties.

Earlier this week, US Under Secretary of Defence Michele Flournoy told the US Senate Armed Forces Committee that Washington looks to pursue a "long-term strategic partnership" with Pakistan.

There has been a clear unravelling of India's post-Mumbai diplomacy drive, frosty conversations among key interlocutors on both sides, and an annoying reverse pressure on India to be "flexible" on contentious issues for Pakistan to act against terrorists.

Officials here say the call for a dialogue on Pakistan's nuclear weapon status flies in the face of its record on non-proliferation given the A Q Khan smuggling network. In fact, the Bush Administration had categorically rejected Pakistani demands for a similar deal.

The report also endorses many policy measures that have already begun to ring alarm bells in Delhi in the context of Washington's new Af-Pak roadmap. While admitting that Indian consulates in Afghanistan do genuine consular work, the task force feels Pakistan's concerns must be addressed.

"The United States should relieve Pakistan's anxiety about Indian consulates in Afghanistan by encouraging transparency and dialogue between the two countries in Afghanistan. Specifically, the United States should encourage Pakistan and India to speak directly about their suspicions towards each other's interests in Afghanistan."

On Kashmir, the task force endorses the past US approach to act from behind-the-scenes and push the Composite Dialogue process.

In what almost echoes Holbrooke's observation when he visited India in February that India, US and Pakistan face "common enemy", implying a coming together of all three countries, this report too calls for India and Pakistan to "look beyond their traditional rivalries and to agree on a joint strategy to confront extremists along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and in their respective countries".

It was this remark from Holbrooke that had many Indian officials annoyed during his first visit, which came just after the Mumbai attacks. At that point, New Delhi was making the case of Pakistan soil being used for attacks against India and Holbrooke, sources said, seemed to talk past Indian concerns by suggesting a united approach with Pakistan.

He was accompanied by two military officials, one each from the US Central Command and the Pacific Command, who were asked to not wear their uniform while in India. He will be coming again to April 7 and this time along with US Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen. Until now, no political meeting has been confirmed for Holbrooke although he will meet Foreign Secretary S S Menon.

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