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The burnt-out case of David Headley

By M K Bhadrakumar
March 22, 2010 15:37 IST
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The Headley case highlights that the Indian government proved incapable of assessing the geopolitical dimensions of the US-led war in Afghanistan, while Pakistan has shrewdly exploited the fallacies in India's foreign policy orientation to navigate itself to an unprecedented geopolitical positioning, writes M K Bhadrakumar.

It must be the mother of all political ironies that the week that the government almost tabled in the parliament an extraordinary legislation safeguarding the business interests of American nuclear industry, should end with the burnt-out case of David Headley.

A whole lot of themes of faith and unbelief on the political-diplomatic front sail into view -- what can only be called the spiritual aridity of India's foreign policy. The time has come to examine the possibility of redemption.

Cooperation in the fight against terrorism lies within the first circle of US-India strategic cooperation. The Mumbai attacks led to unprecedented counter-terrorism cooperation between India and the US -- "breaking down walls and bureaucratic obstacles between the two countries' intelligence and investigating agencies", as the prominent American security expert Lisa Curtis underscored in a plain-speaking US congressional testimony at Washington on March 11.

here is no doubt that David Headley's arrest last October has been a breakthrough in throwing light on the operations and activities of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba in India. To quote Curtis, "Most troubling about the Headley case is what it has revealed about the proximity of the Pakistani military to the LeT." Trouble began brewing from this point.

The stark reality is that the US government viewed LeT largely through the prism of India-Pakistan adversarial ties. This is despite all evidence of the LeT's significant role since 2006 as a facilitator of the Taliban's operations in Afghanistan by providing a constant stream of fighters -- recruiting, training and infiltrating insurgents across the border from the Pakistani tribal areas.

The US's policy prioritised the securing of Islamabad's cooperation on what directly affected American interests and it made distinction between the 'good' Taliban and the 'bad' Taliban. This political chicanery lies at the epicentre of the unfolding drama over Headley.

Without doubt, Headley has been a double agent of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Inter Services Intelligence and it is a moot point whether the US knew this or at what point the US officials began suspecting it. The crux of the matter today is that Headley may spill the beans if Indian interrogators get hold of him and the trail can lead in no time to LeT. Where will that leave the US?

Obviously, Washington is in no position to 'pressure' the Pakistani military. Its obsession is to end the fighting in Afghanistan, which would enable President Barack Obama to drawdown the combat troops and declare victory in the war in the nick of time before the US presidential election campaign in 2012 unfolded.

The extent to which the US is beholden to the Pakistani military today is apparent from the illogical statements being made lately by even self-styled agnostics like the AfPak special representative Richard Holbrooke about Rawalpindi's so-called change of heart regarding use of terrorism as an instrument of geopolitics. Holbrooke applauds even while ISI is reads the riot act to him that any of his secretive reconciliation talks with the Taliban will need to be conducted with its full participation.

No matter what the American lobby in our midst might say, the Indian foreign policy and security establishment should have no illusions that the Obama administration is stringing Delhi along on the Headley case. The US cannot afford to acknowledge the reality that the LeT enjoys the support of the Pakistani military. For, that would complicate its strategic cooperation with the Pakistani military and in turn call into question its reconciliation policy toward Taliban.

Therefore, the US will do its utmost to ensure India is not handed down a shred of hard evidence by Headley linking LeT with the Pakistani military. Where does that leave our government?

Clearly, the assumptions underlying India's foreign policy ever since the UPA government came to power in 2004 are unravelling. These included first-rate bloomers like the idea of a US-led quadripartite alliance against China, India being an Asian balancer against China, the Tibet card, etc. They included naive estimations that a strategic partnership with the US could substitute for an independent foreign policy, that the contacts with Pakistan were best conducted under US watch, that Delhi must synchronise its policies with the US's global strategies.

The plain truth is that India today is saddled with a nuclear deal that is becoming difficult to operationalise except on American terms; India's ties with Iran are in tatters; the high level of understanding forged with both Iran and China by the previous NDA government in 2003 stands dissipated.

Worst of all, Headley's case highlights that the government proved incapable of assessing the geopolitical dimensions of the US-led war in Afghanistan. The government failed to comprehend that the ground realities of the war were pushing geopolitical alignments inexorably toward the formation of a US-Pakistan strategic axis. Pakistan has shrewdly exploited the fallacies in India's foreign policy orientation to navigate itself to an unprecedented geopolitical positioning.

This isn't paranoia or pessimism. On Wednesday, the US-Pakistan strategic dialogue is scheduled to be held in Washington with the Pakistani military leadership making an undisguised pitch for a pivotal partnership between the two countries commensurate with what it regards as Pakistan's legitimate claim to be a regional power.

India, on the other hand, looks around confusedly, unsure of its ability to connect Headley's clemency plea with the big picture, and like the burnt-out case in the Graham Greene classic, badly in need of a self-cure.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat.

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