Thursday, December 3, 2009

OBAMA AND INDIA: NO ROOM FOR APPREHENSION NOW

During the last month or so, President Barack Obama has taken some significant steps that, viewed in totality, should make India more than happy.

When Obama entered the White House a little under a year back, there were serious apprehensions in India about where in his world view India would fit. If there was one country in the world where his predecessor, George Bush, was not hated, it was India. And that was because of the manner in which he forged a new strategic partnership with this country, as exemplified by the Indo-US Nuclear Deal, which would never have gone through had it not been for his personal push and commitment.

India's misgivings about Obama were centered around two main issues: Kashmir and the Nuclear Deal. A couple of months before he became President, in an interview with Joe Klien of Time magazine, Obama spoke about working with India and Pakistan to try to resolve the Kashmir crisis in a serious way. That set off alarm bells. What was overlooked then was that, at that point of time, he believed that was the best way to go to get Pakistan off Kashmir to better face "the biggest threat...coming from the Afghan border". His views on non-proliferation, consistent with his broad vision of a nuclear weapons free world, and a few steps taken by him subsequently, also made it appear as if the Nuclear Deal was all but off. Again, his statement that he remained committed to it was swallowed with a heavy dose of skepticism.

I, for one, was always certain that for India, Obama would prove to be even better than Bush. In an article written just two days after he became President, I explained in detail why I believed that would happen. Almost a year of uncertainties later, that belief, semantics apart, is beginning to be proved right.

The Nuclear Deal, despite many hiccups since it was signed, is all but through, as Obama and Dr Manmohan Singh clarified during the latter's recent visit to the US. In fact, Obama sprang a small surprise when, during his welcome speech, he referred to India and the US as "nuclear powers". The final agreement regarding reprocessing should be signed soon, and the chapter closed to India's satisfaction.

Obama has been clear from day one that the US faces a real, direct threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and not Iraq. Before he became President, he may have thought that getting India to make some concessions to Pakistan on Kashmir would help the latter focus on the war in Afghanistan. All that has changed during the last one year. Obama is evidently no longer in any doubt that Kashmir and Afghanistan are two sides of the same terror coin. And that the war against it has to be won in Pakistan. I had little doubt that he would grasp this fundamental fact after he became President, and reach the logical conclusion that any deal on Kashmir that is seen as even a small victory for terrorists would lengthen rather than strengthen the war on terror.

That is why he is no longer pushing India for a deal on Kashmir. That is why he has quietly expanded the war inside Pakistan by widening the areas covered by drone attacks operated by the CIA against militants and sending additional spies there. That is also why, in a two-page letter to President Zardari last month, he asked Pakistan to stop using insurgent groups like the LeT as a strategic tool, and warned that if it did not deliver against the terrorists, the US would be impelled to use "any means" at its disposal. What General James Jones, US National Security Advisor, delivered to Pakistan is much more than a letter. It is a defining shift in US strategy. For the first time, the LeT, which operates in Kashmir and the rest of India, has been bracketed with five other terror groups that are active against the US in Afghanistan. Obama has asked Pakistan to stop using it for pursuing its policy goals, warning that any ambiguity in its relationship with the LeT and other groups could not be ignored.

Above all, after deliberating for a couple of months over the recommendation of General Stanley A. McChrystal for an additional 40,000 soldiers in Afghanistan, Obama has authorised sending of 30,000 US troops to that country and asked NATO allies to chip in with more. With this, the strength of US forces will go up to around 100,000, in addition to 40,000 troops from other NATO countries. Although he has also made it clear that the this commitment is not open-ended and announced that the withdrawal of troops will begin in July 2011, he has also said that he will bring this war to a successful conclusion, and has reminded Americans that the "security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake."

Some Indian analysts, citing India's experience in Kashmir, believe that the troop surge is too little. They forget that combat power available to US troops is enormous. In contrast, Indian forces have been operating for two decades with little firepower beyond their personal weapons. That is why we keep seeing the spectacle of a couple of militants holed up in a house holding up hundreds of soldiers for days. Indian policy makers are happy to let soldiers keep dying, but will not allow any collateral damage at all to prevent their deaths. That will not happen in Afghanistan; missiles, helicopter gun ships, jet fighters, satellites - the works - are force multipliers that drastically reduce the number of boots required on ground.

There is also the ever-present apprehension that the US will hand Afghanistan back to Pakistan and scoot. But Obama has made it clear that the US is not just going to walk away this time, and will continue to support Pakistan "long after the guns have fallen silent." Till the Al Qaida and other extreme elements with a similar mindset are not fully defeated and the danger of their acquiring nuclear weapons not completely eliminated, there is no way that the US is going to pull out; the risk simply cannot be taken. One more attack on the mainland and the picture will become crystal clear to Americans and others. A nuclear 9/11? Unthinkable.

Obama has no choice but to say at this point of time that Pakistan is its ally in this war. He needs it to fight the cancer that it has given birth to and is giving life to. 80% of the requirements of troops in Afghanistan pass through Pakistan and he needs it to protect that supply line. He cannot, yet, allow US troops to enter Pakistan to strike at the roots of terror; Pakistan's military has first to be made to kill its own creations - the controllable enemy has to be used to kill the wild, dangerous one. Perhaps Obama is aware that Pakistan's military establishment may not able to do that to his entire satisfaction. That is why he has threatened to use "any means", if it doesn't. He has also, manifestly, come to realise that if the US leaves Afghanistan with even the LeT intact, the ideology that ignites it will again attempt fierce retaliatory attacks on the mainland. The situation could well get out of control.

The US, therefore, cannot afford to be defeated in Af-Pak; for its own security, India too needs to see it win the war there. Afghanistan remains the doorway to India, particularly with a fundamentalist Pakistan in between. In that sense, it is no less important than Kashmir. So, make no mistake: this is India's war too. That is why it is India which is America's natural ally in this war and beyond. Obama understands that now more than ever before. George Bush got this one right.

So far India has been lucky to be no more than a distant bystander happily watching the US do its dirty job for it. That luxury may not be available forever, if Obama wants to win and de-induct US troops in a reasonable time-frame, and Pakistan does not play up as it must. It is now up to India's leaders to prepare the nation to do whatever may be asked of it to ensure the victory of "secular forces" in Af-Pak. In India's supreme national interest.
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