Pathways to security

DEEPA OLLAPALLY

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FOR the first time in decades, India finds itself with security options that are generally attractive and open, both in South Asia and beyond. This is true whether we consider India vis-a-vis the key regional players, China, Russia and Pakistan or internationally, the U.S. However, nothing can be taken for granted since the aftermath of September 11 continues to buffet these states with their policies still in flux. What is certain is that given the unprecedented U.S. global supremacy, the overriding goal of each of these states is to gain maximum leverage and influence with the U.S. In that context, while minimizing conflict with each other will be important, it is likely to be subordinated to their larger goal.

 

 

In looking at India’s security environment, several levels have to be considered: the international setting with the U.S. as the central player; the outer regional arena with Russia, China and Afghanistan; the inner regional level with the Indo-Pakistan conflict at its core; and last but not least, India’s internal position. If we take the nuclear tests of 1998 as one marker of change, and U.S. President Bill Clinton’s trip to India as another key marker, it is safe to say that India’s fortunes had climbed beyond expectations in 1998, but that they have not met expectations since 2000. The question that needs to be answered now is what the most recent marker, September 11, holds in store for India in the short and long run.

As of 10 September 2001, American perceptions of South Asia had crystallized to the point that it was describing future relations with India in terms of a strategic partnership. At the same time, the U.S. showed clear signs of increasing frustration with its erstwhile Cold War ally, Pakistan, which was viewed as sliding toward a ‘failing state’ status. While India was seen as an asset, Pakistan was becoming a liability. The Bush administration’s interest in India has gone well beyond the economic realm which provided the initial impetus for improved relations, and is motivated in part by a geopolitical conception of international relations.

This conception tacitly sees India as a key emerging counter/balance to Chinese power. For the first time in 50 years, there is a growing strategic consensus between India and the U.S. on the nature of the Asian balance of power: neither want it to be dominated by China. Neither U.S. nor Indian policy-makers will articulate this consensus openly, but they tend to express fears about China in private. U.S.-India military to military and defence establishment interactions illustrated by the meeting of the new Defense Policy Group on the American side, and its Indian counterpart which are unprecedented, could lay the foundation for a deeper and more enlarged relationship.

 

 

While the progress in Indo-U.S. relations had been steady since 2000, the U.S. war in Afghanistan and its re-engagement with Pakistan has thrown a wild card into the equation. For the first time ever, Americans have close ties with both India and Pakistan. There is little doubt that from the American perspective, the ability to have some leverage over both countries is one of the biggest gains in the post 9/11 world. But as the crisis on the subcontinent from December 2001 on shows, the U.S. is not immune to the inevitable dilemmas arising out of trying to walk a fine line between two hostile neighbours, thus leaving some room for India (and Pakistan) to push their own agendas vis-a-vis the U.S.

One of the unintended consequences of America’s war on terrorism in Afghanistan, coupled with the crisis on the subcontinent, has been the evolution willy nilly, of a level of strategic clarity vis-a-vis the military situation surrounding Kashmir. An international consensus seems to have emerged that eliminating Pakistan’s support for armed militancy in Kashmir is instrumental in reducing the danger of war on the subcontinent. There is also a strong view that given the nuclearization of the subcontinent, attempts to change existing borders or generally accepted demarcations such as the Line of Control in Kashmir by military force, is not going to be tolerated. This is rooted in fears of escalation from conventional war to nuclear conflict, which has become a central concern of the U.S./international community without reference to the merits of the Kashmir insurgency one way or the other.

India’s openly ‘coercive diplomacy’ of unprecedented military mobilization and war threats since the December 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament was viewed by Pakistan as an untenable position for India. This confidence was based on the fact that India did not possess very good military options given the dispersal of terrorist camps and facilities across the LoC, and that despite a conventional military superiority, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons effectively wiped out India’s military advantage.

Pakistan’s calculation appeared to be well founded at first, with the U.S. and other western countries calling on India to ‘de-escalate’, despite lack of visible action by General Pervez Musharraf to stop the infiltration. India could only draw the conclusion that the U.S. was simply too dependent on Pakistan in the war against Al Qaeda to pressure him to stop infiltration.

 

 

This dependence, which had served it well so far after 9/11, was what Pakistan was counting on. However, hints of resorting to nuclear war by Pakistan and its unwillingness to shed its opposition to a no-first use policy, the ambivalent attitude detected in its actions on the ground against extremists, together with India’s continuing mobilization, shifted American policy preferences to the point of placing the burden of containing the crisis on Pakistan.

The joint approach taken by George Bush and Vladimir Putin by the end of May 2002 to demand that General Musharraf ‘permanently’ end his country’s support of cross-border attacks against India, was a watershed.1 What the crisis on the subcontinent (and the war in Afghanistan for that matter) did for India was to draw attention to the links between militant groups and the Pakistani government. Prior to this, these links were shrouded in ambiguity and disclaimers. One lesson is that America’s anti-terrorism policy on the subcontinent is still evolving, and that neither Pakistan nor India can take anything for granted.

 

 

In this connection, having raised the ante in the crisis with Pakistan, India has also raised the stakes in Kashmir, which in turn could rebound to India’s disadvantage down the road. A mitigating factor for India may be that its unrelenting opposition to external influence on Kashmir has over time led to an acceptance by the international community regarding the realistic limits of its role.

Apart from the long term trends in India of economic growth, strategic capability and democratic stability, all which drive Indo-U.S. relations, post-September 11 concerns have converged upon making the region’s politics more ‘moderate’. According to U.S. reports, Al Qaeda terrorist cells or presence may be found in 60 different countries. One assessment concludes that ‘The internal workings of Pakistani or Saudi or Indonesian ministries and intelligence services is now a matter of extreme national interest to the United States, and it is prepared to exert its power in order to get those entities to operate in a manner that coheres with American interests.’2

In the final analysis, as has been the case for much of the past decade, American policy toward Pakistan is likely to be motivated by rescuing it from further political, economic and social derailment. Thus U.S. policy may be expected to have an ‘India first’ quality about it, though not an ‘India only’ policy.

 

 

The interest in counter-terrorism and the promotion of moderate Islamic states in the region is not only shared by India and the U.S., but also by Russia, China, and the new government in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s position on this remains rather mixed given the competing domestic pressures on the government. However strong General Musharraf’s own commitment is to this goal, he faces the huge challenge of militant groups and radical Islamist sentiments that are deeply entrenched in Pakistani society and state structures, from the intelligence services to education. The only really effective way of breaking their hold is to offer democratic governance and genuine economic development, both in extremely short supply in Pakistan.

The uncertainty and skepticism about how far the Pakistani government will go, and how successful the effort will be, is no doubt entering into the calculations of the regional actors who have most to lose from the persistence of jihadi elements in their neighbourhood. Both China and Russia are seriously concerned about challenges to territorial sovereignty from Islamic movements (militant or otherwise), from Xinjiang, the western province bordering Central Asia, and Chechnya, respectively.

The Chinese, whose approach to South Asia in the past has been clearly Pakistan centred, may be reassessing its continuing utility. The trip to India by Premier Zhu Rongji and his high powered delegation in January 2002 which included a much publicized stop in Bangalore amidst talk of technology cooperation, is a sign of China’s search for diversifying its options on the subcontinent.

This is not to suggest that China is ready to give up its historic drive to ‘contain’ India and tie it down in South Asia, or that it will easily relinquish military-technical links with Pakistan. Rather, displaying typical pragmatism, China’s relationship with Pakistan may increasingly serve as an insurance policy against India to check the latter’s military role, rather than an active partnership underwritten by a blank check.

China also needs to keep its options open because at the international strategic level, it is becoming the ‘odd man out’, exemplified by the impact of the American missile defence system. Although U.S. plan for a missile defense system was greeted with extreme skepticism from nearly all important quarters, including the Europeans, Russia, China and India, the last two years have witnessed a significant falling off of criticism, with India nearly endorsing it. It is not that these countries have bought into the merits of missile defence, rather, the shift comes from their calculations of self interest (for example, Russia’s apparent willingness to take an economic deal in return), and the futility of continued opposition. Whichever way one looks at missile defence, the inescapable conclusion is that China stands to lose the most, and be hemmed in the most.

 

 

After a period of benign neglect, Russia has been resuscitating its long standing ties with India, culminating in the highly successful trip by President Putin to India in October 2000, including an unprecedented visit to the nerve centre of the country’s nuclear establishment, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC). This held importance in both substance and symbolism since it served to rescue India from international diplomatic isolation on the nuclear question, as well as sanctions against nuclear technology transfer. At the same time, just before September 11, overtures between Russia and Pakistan were also occurring. This reflected in part Russia’s concern regarding Pakistan’s role in sponsoring terrorism in Afghanistan and its spillover effect on Russian interests which needed to be addressed more directly.

 

 

Since September 11, Russia’s importance has grown internationally given the need for Russian acquiescence for American military activities in neighbouring states. From India’s point of view, Russia remains an important interlocutor on South Asia, one that so far has tended to support Indian security concerns. Indo-Russian ties are also cemented by high levels of defence trade, with India and China trading places over the last decade as Russia’s number one arms recipient.

At the broad regional level, U.S. presence in Central Asia and Afghanistan may be tolerable for Russia and China in the short run, but are bound to go against traditional Russian and Chinese influence in the longer term, both in terms of geopolitics and energy supplies. The emergence of new threats to stability in Afghanistan almost on a daily basis demonstrates that the U.S. will not be able to exit as quickly as Russia and China might like.

This is a point on which Indian views may begin to diverge with its two powerful neighbours if Indo-U.S. military ties grow, and India sees benefit in having the U.S. as a force for maintaining what is currently a more favourable regional status quo thanks to the ouster of the Taliban. The alternative may be a U.S. withdrawal leaving behind the possibility of Pakistan regaining some of the ground it has lost in Afghanistan, and along with it, its so-called ‘strategic depth’ on the western border.

 

 

It is becoming all too clear that General Musharraf’s 180 degree turnaround on Afghanistan has brought only transient ‘relief’ for the country. A wave of new attacks against westerners and Christians suggest that militant groups may be regrouping for a sustained campaign in reaction to the Pakistani government’s post September 11 decisions, including the promise to crackdown on terrorists. Ironically, one of the groups believed to be involved in the strikes within Pakistan (Jaish-e-Muhammad), is the same one accused of staging attacks in Kashmir against Indians. According to military and security sources, such Pakistani militant groups are linked to Al Qaeda and the Taliban.3

If the Pakistani government still holds hopes of distinguishing between Kashmir oriented militants and other sectarian and extremist groups operating against Pakistanis, they are no longer very tenable. Most importantly, the question remains as to what incentives (or threats) will wean the Pakistani military establishment away from the low cost strategy of waging a proxy war in Kashmir. As long as the U.S. remains engaged in the war on terrorism in Southern Asia, continuation of Pakistan’s past military policies (low cost proxy war or Kargil type conventional incursions) is likely to produce increasing costs.

Pakistan’s attempt to use the ‘stability-instability paradox’ in Kargil whereby Indian hands are tied despite its conventional superiority has not brought expected dividends.+ Conversely, brandishing the nuclear sword in any fashion is fraught with difficulties for Pakistan, because it plays directly into western fears (justified or not) about the volatility of South Asian politics and why nuclear weapons are so dangerous in that context.

As far as nuclear weapons in Pakistan are concerned, there is the additional worry after September 11 that under conditions of political upheaval and turmoil, they may fall into the hands of extremists. In light of reports pointing to links between a number of Pakistani nuclear scientists and the Taliban, the U.S. is likely to press for full confidence that there will be no leakage of any sort. But it may simply be impossible for the Pakistani government to provide an absolute and surefire guarantee that nuclear knowhow or weapons components will never pass from Pakistan to terrorist groups. However, the current U.S. administration does not seem prepared to take any chances on this score anywhere in the world, as its evolving strategy which ultimately could include even so-called ‘preemptive strikes’ suggests.

 

 

Pakistan’s continued assistance to the U.S. in tracking down remnants of Al Qaeda could pose a dilemma for General Musharraf’s government which some analysts had warned about in the beginning. A major concern was the possibility of a geographical expansion of U.S. military operations from Afghanistan, which could impinge on Pakistan’s security and sovereignty. As one commentator put it, ‘Clearly, Pakistan’s membership in the international coalition and its active cooperation with the U.S. in facilitating the U.S.’s military operations in Afghanistan, is insufficient to ensure Pakistan’s defence against invasive military and intelligence moves.’5

 

 

The very public manner in which Musharraf severed his country’s patronage of the Taliban under force of circumstances, has led the outside world to learn more details than it would otherwise have about the nexus between key Pakistani officials and extremist groups. Having thrown his country’s lot with the Americans so openly, the Pakistani government has fewer strategic options available than say, the Indonesian government or the Egyptian government on this issue. It is worth noting that alliances with the U.S. in the past have been a double-edged sword for Pakistan. During the Cold War years, U.S. military largesse helped the army to continually play a dominant role in Pakistani politics, thereby contributing to distorting and retarding the development of democratic structures.

Pakistan is, of course, still reeling from the legacy of the Afghan war of the 1980s, long after the U.S. left the region. A large part of the problem is that the U.S. looks at Pakistan in instrumental terms, rather than on its own terms. Without a promising economy and stable democratic politics, U.S. orientations are still going to be narrowly focused on what role Pakistan can traditionally perform: military tasks. While this is not insignificant, it is unlikely to serve as the basis for a balanced and sustained relationship.

India’s impressive economic growth rates during the late 1990s-2000 has been the single most important factor for making it a rising star internationally. Whatever one’s views are on the merits of India going nuclear, its new nuclear status has also made it impossible for outside actors to discount India at the strategic level. However, the current global economic slowdown, the international melt-down in the technology sector, as well as domestic economic bottlenecks, paint an uncertain future for India. The stalemated military mobilization against Pakistan and the step up in defence spending are economically costly and politically draining.

 

 

In addition, India’s image (and business and investment prospects) has been battered after the communal carnage in Gujarat and the government’s indefensible lack of responsive action. Thus while its external environment remains quite favourable, internal developments could have negative repercussions.

Over the last five years, India has shifted from what may be termed a normative, ‘moralpolitik’ security framework to a ‘realpolitik’ one, best illustrated by the nuclear tests and the nuclear doctrine. In the realpolitik world, it is generally pragmatism, rather than ideology, that guide state action. In the unique Indian context, poverty and huge religious and linguistic diversity have been juxtaposed with plural and democratic structures and economic growth and decline.

The success of the Indian experiment has depended in large part on maintaining the ideals of genuine secularism and democracy which absorb much of the economic shocks and political upheavals that other countries in similar stages of development reel under. These ideals then have served very pragmatic purposes as well. In its shift to a more realpolitik paradigm, Indian leaders cannot afford to ignore the traditional sources of internal strength which is after all what the country’s external position will ultimately rest on.

 

Footnotes:

1. The New York Times, 26 May 2002.

2. ‘The Cheney Tour: A Confrontation of Fears’, Strategic Forecasting, 18 March 2002.

3. The Washington Post, 10 August 2002.

4. See for example, Michael Krepon and Chris Gagne, The Stability-Instability Paradox: Nuclear Weapons and Brinkmanship in South Asia, Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, D.C., June 2001.

5. Nasim Zehra, ‘Pakistan and the Ongoing Military Operations’, The News, Islamabad, 6 December 2001.

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