The great gameplan

The spectre of malevolent hubris is haunting South Asia again. It would be foolish to underestimate the signals Pakistan's recent attitude sends about the unfolding strategic scenario in South Asia. The core issue is not that its foreign minister's conduct represented a diplomatic slight to India. Rather, his conduct represents a new warning on how the strategic game is changing in the region.

Pakistan clearly believes that it now holds all the strategic cards. If anyone wanted a case study of how a colossal superpower can be run on puppet strings by a seemingly weak state, surely the way Pakistan has run the US would be a prime example. Despite billions of dollars and a slew of technology and arms, the US has not been able to get Pakistan to move on securing its core objectives, whether it is Al Qaeda, non-proliferation, Afghanistan or greater peace in the region. Pakistan has consistently positioned itself as being indispensable to two superpowers, and in doing so has exposed their limits. As India rises it will have to think more subtly about what power means. It must not get trapped by the self-fulfilling bravado of what passes as strategic thinking, one that has consistently failed to explain how great superpowers can seem so abject and dependent in the face of a country like Pakistan.

Second, this episode is yet another warning that the Americans are incapable of exercising the requisite pressure on India's behalf. The idea that two regimes, bankrolled by American funds, can sign a trade agreement at the cost of India should be a wake-up call. Forget larger strategic matters. If the Americans cannot even prompt a wider and benign trading relationship in the region, what hope do they have of fixing larger issues? American power is now limited to absorbing the cost of failure, it is not capable of achieving objectives, and it has no instruments with which to target the Pakistani elite that matters. Under such circumstances, India would be wise to keep many options open; we would be better off not developing relations with other countries in the region, including Iran, through the prism of American interest.

Third, if Pakistani hubris was not enough, there are more follies afloat. Robert Blackwill, a former US ambassador to India, has floated an argument, now gaining some ground in India, that a division of Afghanistan, premised on nurturing Pashtun nationalism, would help stabilise the region. The situation on the ground in Afghanistan is so messy that it would be unwise to second guess the contours of a "solution". And this may be part of a pressure tactic on Pakistan.

But what strikes you most about this argument is its unrepentant sense of hubris. Does anyone have a credible basis for saying what the character of successor states in Afghanistan will be like? Is there any reason to think that stoking more nationalisms may not create unintended instabilities in the region, including the demonstration effect it might have on Kashmir? Is there any reason to think that this solution will make a dent in the thicket of cultures of violence that now characterise the region? Has any power in the region been able to control the consequences of its own actions? All the strategic talk has a surreal quality to it, almost as if it were the next move in a video game. The relations between intention and action, ends and means, instruments and goals, costs and benefits seem to all be obscured by the self-satisfaction that we are at least making a next move.

In our frustration we should not readily jump to whatever happens to be the next alternative thrown out by Washington pundits. It might seem like a weakness to our bravado-driven strategic community, but India has done itself great service by playing within its limitations as a power; it should not be tempted into actions whose consequences it cannot control. And our newfound enthusiasm for Pashtun nationalism would have been more credible if it had come before rather than after it has become a subject of talk in Washington circles.

Fourth, and most tragically, Qureshi's posturing portends ill for the people of Pakistan. It once again decisively reminds us that the move towards genuine civilian control and democratisation of foreign policy in Pakistan remains a pipe dream. We may diplomatically finesse minor movement in the talks, but there is no getting away from the fact that the trust deficit has deepened. But there are deeper dangers. As K. Subrahmanyam has pointed out, hubris leads to a greater risk of misjudgment, and the regime in Pakistan may now be tempted to try new moves.

The source of Pakistan's current confidence is its ability to regain "strategic depth" in Afghanistan. But the phrase "strategic depth" needs be given an Orwellian reading. For the great tragedy for the Pakistani people has been that what the army thinks of as strategic depth is actually the digging of a hole right through the heart of Pakistan. The Pakistani people think of themselves as victims of terrorism and refugee flows; but these have been a direct consequence of their state's doctrine of strategic depth. And the Pakistani state's engagement with Afghanistan is going to exacerbate this problem not solve it.

The so-called quest for strategic options has become a game too clever by half in most strategic establishments. For a minor example consider China, a power juggernaut that seems to be unstoppable. But there is evidence that Chinese over-reach has backfired. North Korea may be a strategic asset, but China's unwillingness or inability to rein it in has diminished its lustre as a power capable of exercising leadership. A year ago all talk in Asia was how the US would have to accommodate China; now all the talk is about hedging. The sense of fear it projected was perhaps responsible for handing the Americans the Okinawa base on a platter. This is just a small example of how strategic establishments work on their momentum, not on foresight.

South Asia's tragedy is that it has a state, Pakistan, whose military establishment is besotted with a culture of strategic depth even at the cost of the ruination of their own country. It has two superpowers who continue to feed this military machine, under the delusion that some strategic purpose is being achieved. Qureshi was disquieting not because he offered a diplomatic slight, but because he reminded us how much a fatal combination of self-delusion and hubris is still governing our destinies. Perhaps we need a deconstruction of strategic cultures rather than revelling in them.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi

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