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Pakistan fears India's rise in Afghanistan: US official

By Lalit K Jha
October 02, 2009 12:07 IST
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Pakistan believes Afghanistan is developing into an Indian garrison and has been nurturing groups like the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Tayiba over the years to counter it, a key United States Senate Committee has been told.

"I am not making any accusations against any given country in the region. All of them are looking out for their vital interests. But India is becoming involved in Afghanistan to an extent that the Pakistanis consider Afghanistan as developing into an Indian garrison," Milt Bearden, ex-Central Intelligence Agency Station Chief in Islamabad, told Senators during a hearing.

"This is not hysteria. This is a real concern," he said in his testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the hearing on 'Afghanistan's Impact on Pakistan.' He also noted that China has its own interest in the region and has taken a 25 per cent share of a huge copper operation in Afghanistan. "They are building a major port in Pakistan at Gwadar," he added.

"Meanwhile, the Indians, working with the Iranians, are doing the same thing across -- in Iran on the Arabian Sea, building a major port. You have China getting a naval anchor on the Arabian Sea in Pakistan, India and Iran doing exactly the same thing across the border," Bearden said.

He suggested that the US use its stewardship of Afghanistan to bring about some order in the regional resource-driven, 21st century-grade game, a recreation of a Silk Route. "But we're not right now involved in being able to manage that."

Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, termed it as a 'very cogent, thoughtful oversight', which he said will prompt a number of questions.

Steve Coll, President of 'The New America Foundation', said, "The Pakistan military's tolerance of the Taliban historically, and I think currently, and similar groups, is rooted in the belief that Pakistan requires unconventional forces, in addition to a nuclear deterrent, to offset India's conventional military and industrial superiority."

Where it gets complicated is that, he argued, there are sections of the Pakistani military and even the civilian elite who also fear that the US may be collaborating with India, naively or deliberately, to weaken Pakistan by supporting governments in Kabul that are at best hostile to Pakistani interests, and at worst facilitating what some imagine to be Indian efforts to destabilise, disarm or even destroy the Pakistani state.

"Pakistani security services and their leaders have seen an Indian hand in Kabul since the days of the Soviet invasion," Coll said.

He argued that Pakistani commanders tend to interpret India's goals in Afghanistan as 'a strategy of encirclement of Pakistan', punctuated by the tactic of promoting instability among Pakistan's own Pashtun, Baluj and Sindhi populations.

"Pakistan has countered this perceived Indian strategy over the years by developing Islamist militias, such as the predominantly Pashtun Taliban, and the Punjab-based Lashkar-e-Tayiba, as proxies for Pakistan in regional conflicts and as a means to destabilise India, or at least hold it off-balance," he said.

"As for the US role, Pakistani generals have tended to see it as inconstant and unreliable, based on the pattern of here-and-gone US engagement in the past and the narrow definition of US interests in Pakistan. They've also tended to believe that the US, as I say, is today latching itself to an Indian-based strategy in South Asia," Coll said.

If the US signals to the Pakistan military command now that it intends to abandon efforts to stabilise Afghanistan or that it intends to undertake its regional policy primarily through a strategic partnership with India, then it will only reinforce the beliefs of those in Pakistani security establishment who argue that nursing the Taliban is in the country's national interest, he said.

"This, in turn, in my view, will exacerbate instability in Pakistan itself, which is the opposite of US goals," Coll added.

Between withdrawal signals and militarisation, there is a more sustainable strategy, which the Obama administration is in the process of defining, he hoped. "It would make clear that the Taliban will never be permitted to take power by force in Kabul or major cities. It would seek an enforced stability in Afghan population centres but emphasise politics over combat, urban stability over rural patrolling, Afghan solutions over western ones, and it would incorporate Pakistan more directly into creative and persistent diplomatic efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and the region," Coll added.

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