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Wanted: A special envoy for Af-Pak

By ED Mathew
August 05, 2010 12:31 IST
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India urgently needs to bring substantial strategic depth to its dealings with Pakistan as well as Afghanistan, argues E D Mathew, political commentator

The botched exercise that was the recent talks between foreign ministers of India and Pakistan, coming in the wake of the Sharm el-Sheikh blunder, reveals the urgent need for a significant strategic shift in India's foreign policy. Mired in old school diplomacy, New Delhi is faltering perilously to keep up with the rapidly changing global and regional equations.

The outspoken remarks by visiting British Prime Minister David Cameron must be an eye-opener for India. "We cannot tolerate in any sense the idea that this country (Pakistan) is allowed to look both ways and is able, in any way, to promote the export of terror, whether to India or whether to Afghanistan or anywhere else in the world," he said. India must take the tide created by Prime Minister Cameron on the rise and bring strategic depth to its dealings with Pakistan.

Let us face it. Since we do not get to choose our neighbours, Pakistan is likely to be a thorn in India's flesh for a very long time to come. Of late, not a day passes without a steady drumbeat of gory headlines of bomb attacks that kill scores of civilians in major Pakistani cities. With vast swathes of Pakistani territory beyond government control, it is a fertile breeding ground for jihadists that can cause significant threat to India's security as evidenced by 26/11 Mumbai attacks.

In an extreme scenario, Pakistan could become a failed State, the first of its kind with a nuclear arsenal at its disposal. The ramifications are unimaginable, and India, being its more powerful neighbour and a victim of terror emanating from Pakistan, must step up its diplomatic efforts to stem the rot.

In the trove of secret military field reports that exposed the warts of American-led war in Afghanistan, made public a few days ago by whistle-blower web site WikiLeaks, there are major revelations that must worry India. According to the leaked documents, members of Pakistan's spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence meet directly with the Taliban in secret strategy sessions to organise networks of militant groups that fight against American soldiers in Afghanistan, and even hatch plots to assassinate Afghan leaders. These are reports based on raw intelligence and threat assessments gathered from the field in Afghanistan but easily serve to validate the reality: normal countries have armies but in Pakistan, the army has a country.

Last week, although he was due to retire in November, Pakistan's army chief General Parvez Ashfaq Kayani's term was extended for another three years by Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, confirming the significant influence of senior army figures in the country, a cause for major concern to many of Pakistan's neighbours. And it was the same General Kayani who ran the ISI from 2004 to 2007. Although Pakistan, with a long history of army rule, at present has an elected government, it is no secret that the country's army is the de facto government. Pakistan's India policy is controlled by the army and ISI. That begs the question: To what extend can talks between South block and officials of Pakistan's civilian government be meaningful?

"Few states put as much faith in diplomacy alone as India does. Yet, in the absence of realistic, goal-oriented statecraft, the propensity to act in haste and repent at leisure runs deep in Indian foreign policy. Gushy expectations and wishful thinking have blighted Indian foreign policy and condemned the nation to relive history," says Brahma Chellaney, professor of Strategic Studies at the Centre for Policy Research and a celebrated thought leader. "Confusion and contradiction marks India's current Pakistan policy."

India's strategic interests and its relations with Pakistan are inextricably linked to Afghanistan, the theatre of Pakistani exploits of double dealing exposed by the leaked documents. 'The ISI has long seen the Afghan Taliban as a proxy force, a way to ensure its influence on the other side of the border and keep India's influence at bay,' wrote New York Times in a recent editorial. No further proof of this assessment is needed than the attack on India's embassy in Kabul that killed a number of Indian officials and was masterminded by the ISI.

'Why on earth are elements of the Pakistani military supporting the Taliban? In a word, India. India is, first and last, the strategic obsession of the Pakistani military. The US has come and gone from the region in the past; the perceived Indian threat is eternal,' writes Joe Klein in the latest issue of Time magazine.

That the Pakistan-Afghanistan conundrum poses an alarming security threat to the entire South Asian region and beyond is not in dispute. However, New Delhi has failed to assert its regional leadership to gain strategic advantage and to counter the grave threats to the country's internal security.

Although driven by its military involvement in Afghanistan, the United States has taken special interest in handling the regional imbroglio with President Barack Obama appointing Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to deal with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Not because Washington does not have its own ambassadors in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, or that they are in any way incapable of handling their briefs. Employing special envoys to deal with singular issues that may need particular attention is one of the novel ways of modern diplomacy.

A top foreign policy expert with significant diplomatic experience, Holbrooke frequently shuttles between Kabul and Islamabad and occasionally drops by New Delhi. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton too travels often to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and recently announced a raft of new aid projects worth $500m as part of Washington's attempts to counter anti-US sentiment in Pakistan.

Amidst such flurry of diplomatic activity in our backyard, India seems hopelessly left out, despite the country's regional and global leadership aspirations. India urgently needs to bring substantial strategic depth to its dealings with Pakistan as well as Afghanistan.

New Delhi could take a leaf from American diplomacy and appoint a special envoy, someone with considerable diplomatic experience and international exposure like Holbrooke. The more sinned against than sinning Shashi Tharoor, whose sterling work at South Block during his short stint as minister of state was unsung by the vindictive and sensation-seeking Indian media, could be an ideal candidate for such a job. In addition to his intellectual heft and diplomatic skills, the long list of influential personalities from around the world he has cultivated over the years, including Holbrooke, Clinton, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, could come in handy for him.

Whether it is Tharoor or anyone else with suitable credentials who can bring in fresh ideas and deftly represent India's democratic strengths and secularist signature in dealing with Pakistan and Afghanistan, perhaps involving close interactions with Holbrooke and Clinton as well, such a bold initiative should have the solid backing and brief from both the prime minister and the ministry of external affairs. The special envoy, given an appropriate rank and office, could work out of the Prime Minister's office.

How well India manages its equations with a chaotic, nuclear armed Pakistan and influences post-war Afghanistan will be critical to the country's security and stature. That may require a gamechanger approach from India's foreign policy mandarins. Over to you, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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ED Mathew