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This is undoubtedly Pak army's moment

March 29, 2010 20:39 IST

As Washington tries to find its way out of Afghanistan, Pakistan has emerged as the central player dictating the terms of this emerging endgame in South Asia, notes Harsh V Pant.

Pakistan's Army Chief General Ashraf Kayani, and its foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, led a delegation to the United States last week to reopen ministerial level "Strategic Dialogue" talks with the Obama administration.

It seemed like a veritable love-fest with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton underlining that a 'new day2 had begun in the ties between the two states and Qureshi reinforcing the central role of Pakistan in America's fight against extremism.'

The Pakistani foreign minister declared himself to be a 'happy' and 'satisfied' man at the conclusion of these talks. The Obama administration left no stone unturned in courting Pakistan with the US secretary of defense declaring Pakistan's counter-insurgency efforts to be 'extraordinary.'

Pakistani officials had arrived in Washington with a 56-page list of 'priorities' but there was movement on only a few, though crucial ones.

A new $7.5 billion five-year US aid package for Pakistan's energy, water, agriculture, and educational sectors was announced. Differences over $1 billion unpaid US reimbursements for Pakistan's counter-insurgency operations were resolved.

Pakistan has resolved more than $7 billion worth of arms from the US since September 11, 2001. The wish-list included more equipment primarily directed at countering India's military might. Some of the major defence supplies that Pakistan would be receiving over the coming years include eight P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircrafts, five 250 TOW anti-armour missile systems, six AN/TPS-77 surveillance radars, six C-130E transport aircrafts, and  20 AH-1F Cobra attack helicopters.

For all the talk of ensuring that the civilian government in Islamabad gets strengthened -- for which the US Congress has even mandated certification from the Secretary of State -- the Obama administration has completely shifted the balance of power in favour of the army in Pakistan.

Kayani has emerged as the most important player and his is relishing his role. He has sidelined Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari; he has gone back on the understating reached between India and Pakistan during the Musharraf period; he has made it amply clear that Pakistani government cannot be allowed to settle Kashmir dispute by making the Line of Control irrelevant; more damagingly, he has raked up the non-issue of water to justify Pakistan army's India-centric defence posture.

This is undoubtedly Pakistan army's moment. It is feeling that after years of marginalisation, the US needs it more than anytime in recent past. More significantly, a perception is gaining ground that it is winning in shaping the strategic map of the region for the furtherance of its own interests.

By making its desperation to leave Afghanistan apparent, the Obama administration has provided a sense of indispensability to the Pakistani army. The West can only leave early and save face if it is able to bring the so-called 'moderate Taliban' to the negotiating table. Pakistani security establishment, that has been the patron of the Taliban for the last two decades, therefore becomes a crucial conduit for the West to come sort of an understanding with the Taliban.

Pakistan has made it clear time and again that only Islamabad and Rawalpindi can bring the Afghan Taliban into the political mainstream. It captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a senior Taliban leader, to sabotage the United Nations' direct back-channel negotiations with Baradar's faction of the Taliban. Pakistani army wants to retain its central role in mediation efforts at all costs. It has tried to showcase its efficacy by fighting the Pakistani Taliban for the past nine months in Swat and South Waziristan. Now it would like to be compensated for its actions against the extremists.

India's role in Afghanistan was under scrutiny in Washington. Pakistani army will not allow a growing role in the training of Afghan forces and has been made a counter-offer to train the Afghans. Getting India out of Afghanistan is the first order priority for Rawalpindi and has been stressed as the most important factor in the success of Pakistani actions in reining in the Taliban.

Ever since the US-India civilian nuclear energy cooperation agreement, the Pakistani establishment has been demanding a similar deal from the US.

After explicitly rejecting such demands for long, the Obama administration might also be changing its position on this critical issue. The US ambassador to Pakistan, Anne Patterson, has been reported to have suggested that the US was 'beginning to have a discussion with the Pakistan government' on the country's desire to tap nuclear energy.

It should therefore not come as a surprise that after recent disclosures about nuclear 'black marketeer' A Q Khan's links to the Iranian nuclear programme, the Pakistani government has now filed a petition in the court seeking to investigate Khan.

Khan had disclosed recently that Pakistan gave Iran drawings related to a nuclear bomb, parts of centrifuges to purify uranium and a secret worldwide list of suppliers.

Though it is unlikely that there will be any movement on this issue anytime soon, the Obama administration clearly is not in a position to ignore the demands of the Pakistani security establishment at this critical juncture in its Afghanistan endeavour.

It has already effectively marginalized India in Afghanistan. In its desperation to get out of Afghanistan, the Obama administration might be taking an approach that will do more harm than good over the long-term.

The biggest challenge comes from the rapid ascendancy of the Pakistani military in the nation's power structure and as a corollary in shaping Pakistan's strategic agenda in recent months.

Instead of helping the civilian government to get traction, Washington itself has pulled the rug from under its doddering feet. By relying on the Pakistani military to secure its short-term ends in Afghanistan, the US has made sure that the fundamental malaise afflicting Pakistan -- the militarisation of the Pakistani state -- will continue to afflict Pakistan and South Asia will grave implications for sustainable long-term peace in the subcontinent.

India cannot be expected to make peace with a security establishment in Pakistan that continues to raise the bogey of the 'Indian threat' to justify retaining its predominance over the Pakistani polity.

It is time for New Delhi to up the ante and make it clear to the US that vital Indian interests cannot be taken for granted. America's credibility as a serious partner in India's fight against terrorism is increasingly in doubt.

India should underline that another terrorist attack will force New Delhi to respond. India cannot be expected to take care of American interests when its own interests are getting ignored consistently.

The writer teaches at King's College, London

Harsh V Pant