For too long, our defence policy has stammered in the swamp of ambivalence. That phase of dithering must come to an end now as the dices of geopolitics are rolling faster than a bullet train. Faced with a new brand of geopolitical challenge due to increased US-Pakistan bitterness, Delhi is desperate to pull Dhaka under its strategic schemes, in a hurry. On the other hand, fearful of losing its grip on Afghanistan in the absence of cooperation from Pakistan, the US too is changing its priorities in South Asia in order to checkmate the rising China dragon.
As Delhi's huge investment in Afghanistan faces the prospect of being worthless due to the US's planned withdrawal by 2014 - and more and more Pakistani influence-peddling in Afghanistan seeming inevitable - foreign office mandarins in Delhi's South Block are bidding hard to recalibrate their priorities by taking on board countries like Bangladesh and Nepal where Delhi wields substantial influence.
Transit and base
The alacrity stems from one singular factor: The US-Pakistan honeymoon is crumbling too fast, the US having announced on July 10 that it would withhold $800 million in military assistance to Pakistan in a retaliatory move over Pakistan's recent cutback on U.S. trainers, limits on visas for U.S. personnel, and, other bilateral irritants which are mounting almost daily. Although the US is simultaneously involved in crafting a lasting peace deal with the Taliban, policy makers in Washington are aware that the Taliban peace route traverses through Islamabad and Pakistan holds the key to any sustainable peacemaking with the Taliban.
Desperate to making alternative arrangements in the instance the US presence in Afghanistan turns untenable, the US proposed in late May to sign a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) with Nepal, which the Nepalese defence ministry was studying after having received formally through the US embassy, according to a diplomatic source. "Defence ministry has forwarded the proposal to the army headquarters on June 3, asking for suggestions," said the source.
It's not a coincidence that within weeks, on July 6, Indian foreign minister, S M Krishna, told a joint press briefing in Dhaka that talks were in the final stages to ink a transit deal with Bangladesh. "We're extremely optimistic and hopeful that we would be able to arrive at an agreement which will be mutually beneficial," Krishna said. The deal will allow Indian convoys - civil and military - to ferry across Bangladesh to the land-locked Northeast States, many of which are strategically indispensable and abut China and its regional military ally, Myanmar.
As Beijing viewed such moves as bids to encircle the Chinese mainland, it wanted Pakistan to come further closer to counterbalance this looming threat. The Holiday had learnt that, following the recent visit to Beijing of Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, Delhi and Washington began to act in concert to squeeze a transit deal from Bangladesh at the earliest; despite the deal, under its current format of using Bangladesh as an Indian corridor, is economically unviable, politically unpopular and geopolitically suicidal. The deal is extremely unpopular among the Bangladeshi people.
The latest Pak-US rift surfaced on the heels of lingering irritations which turned bitterly acerbic in the follow up to the raid by U.S. Special Forces on May 2 that had allegedly killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Although no conclusive evidence has emerged as yet to authenticate that claim, the incident, however, jolted Pakistan and its army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, who faced disgraceful bad-mouthing following the Bin Laden killing incident from fellow officers demanding an explanation from him as to why Pakistan should support the U.S.
Mistrust deepened further when the CIA chief, Leon Panetta, admitted that the Pakistanis were 'kept out of the loop' on the Bin Laden raid for fear he would have been tipped off. "It was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission," the CIA director told the Time magazine. In an abashedly blunt rebuke to Islamabad, Panetta added, "They might alert the targets."
Other US lawmakers expressed similar outrage following the arrest of a number of Pakistanis who helped gather intelligence for the CIA about the Bin Laden's compound. Among the arrestees was one Maj. Amir Aziz, a doctor in the Pakistan army's medical corps, who lived next to the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad for several years and has not been seen since after the raid by the U.S. commandos. Aziz was among several other Pakistanis who'd spied for the US.
During a congressional hearing-with Defence Secretary Robert Gates and the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen-Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said, "Just this morning, we see word that our putative ally arrested five people under the suspicion that they helped the US to get Osama bin Laden, after publicly saying, of course, they wanted us to get Osama bin Laden."
Taliban and Pakistan
The May 2 raid has remained an unmitigated irritation inside Pakistan, as most of the Pakistanis saw it as a clear violation of Pakistan's sovereignty. Faced with mass anger, Pakistan's army has warned the US it would risk abandonment of counter-terrorism cooperation if it conducted another assault. Added to the cumulative bitterness caused by the US's routine drone strikes inside Pakistan and the presence of U.S. Special Forces and CIA operatives in the country, bilateral relations reached a breaking point early this year after Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor and a former U.S. Special Forces member killed two Pakistanis in Lahore.
The New America Foundation, which tracks the drone attacks, estimated that the attacks have killed some 2,189 people from 2004 through January this year. Islamabad has also bristled at orchestrated media reports that had linked the ISI to complicity in hiding Bin Laden and in the recent murder of a Pakistani journalist, allegedly by the ISI.
Until now, the US has been Pakistan's biggest aid donor, contributing more than $20 billion since 2002 in order to secure Pakistani support for the US war in Afghanistan. Almost $9 billion of it went to the military which had deployed nearly 150,000 troops in the troubled NWFP to launch anti-Taliban and anti- al-Qaeda operations. Despite having lost hundreds of soldiers in those operations, Pakistan has never managed to earn the full trust of either Kabul or Washington, both of which accused the Pakistani military of fostering the Afghan Taliban it had initially spawned during the 1980s resistance against Soviet occupation forces.
Since October 2004, tension also flared intermittently as Islamabad closed a key supply line for coalition troops in Afghanistan while militants attacked, almost routinely, stranded convoys carrying war logistics from Karachi port to the landlocked Afghan war theatre via North West Pakistan.
False flag operations
A reliable source close to the Pakistani military establishment maintains the US counter intelligence teams have been triggering 'false flag' operations within Pakistan to prove that the country is under the grip of a civil war and on the verge of being taken over by the Taliban. For instance, in late May, a team of heavily armed insurgents stormed a major Pakistani naval base in Karachi, setting off a prolonged gun battle with the security forces and destroying an American-made aircraft at the base. Many within the Pakistani military blame 'cloaked' US agents and US-backed provocateurs for this and many other similar attacks. "We have evidence to prove US involvement", claimed the source, insisting on anonymity.
As accusation and counter accusation intensified, a U.S. Special Operations training program for Pakistan's tribal defence force has been suspended last month due to Islamabad's unwillingness to allow any further US activities within the Pakistan soil while Islamabad also ordered withholding of visas from CIA and other US military personnel assigned to a number of collaborative programs inside Pakistan.
In Washington, many think the Pak-US antagonism has hit the dreaded trip wire syndrome due to Washington's failure in proving conclusively that Laden was in that compound at the time of the assault. Although the compound remained off limits to reporters for too long, a police officer in charge, Qamar Hayat, told reporters that "There is no bunker, nor did I see any secret place where one could hide. There is no cellar." Hayat added, "The belongings of the inmates are intact, including beds, mattresses, a table, chairs and other furniture items." Another police officer said, "Even usual Bin-Laden- type attires were not found in the compound."
Amidst such swirling cynicism, the unwillingness or the inability of the Obama administration to offer any credible, conclusive evidence that Bin Laden was in that compound, and had been killed there, has managed to further anger majority of the Pakistanis. They say 'why blame Pakistan for harbouring Laden when you can not prove it?' Footage obtained by the ABC network inside the Abottabad house also showed blood on the floor in one room and broken computers in another, while crowds outside, including women and children, shouting "Brother Osama is alive."
To the contrary, many Pakistanis believe the US was after the Pakistani nukes and the Abottabad raid on May 2 aimed to both show off some success in the war on terror as well as to test the Pakistani preparedness against surprise attacks of this kind. Further twist to these hyperboles came from the leaders in both Afghanistan and India who said Bin Laden's discovery so close to Islamabad vindicated their claims of double-dealing by Pakistan's military and intelligence apparatuses.
This caginess is what had accentuated the Pak-US relations to plunge to such a low depth, and, added to an already paranoid Pakistani psyche, shaped since November 2010 when the WikiLeaks disclosed that the US had led top secret efforts, for years, to remove highly enriched uranium from Pakistan. The revealed diplomatic cables showed that in May 2009, US ambassador Anne Patterson failed to schedule a visit by American technical experts to the Pakistani nuclear facilities to remove enriched uranium from the site.
Washington took this as a major snub and the New York Times (NYT) managed somehow to clear the fog by outlining the reason for the Pakistani negation. Quoting a nameless Pakistani official-who had said, "If the local media got word of the fuel removal, they certainly would portray it as the United States taking Pakistan's nuclear weapons,"-the NYT showed how sensitive the matter was within Pakistan.
Some experts estimate Pakistan has up to 100 nuclear weapons, which are capable of hitting targets all across India and the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, if needed. The Israeli dimension is added by the facts that the initial fund to build the so called 'Islamic bomb' by Pakistan came from a number of Muslim nations, including from Col. Qaddafi's Libya. That is why the US is reported to have set up an elite squad that could fly into the country and attempt to secure the weapons. It also partly explains why a peace-monger like Barack Obama, who had clinched a Nobel Prize for his desperate peace bids, ordered US fighters to bomb Libya and remove Qaddafi from power. Obama indeed cowered to the omnipotent Jewish pressure.
But Pakistan is neither Libya nor Iraq, and, it was only natural under such a scenario that the Pak-US tensions over the killing of Osama Bin Laden, coupled with a speedier US withdrawal from Afghanistan, would further reinforce Pak-China military ties. Islamabad is also aware that, drowned under Himalayan debt burdens, Washington has little ability to provide financial assistance to any nation.
Thus the inevitable began to shape up. Since February, China and Pakistan pledged to enhance strategic communication and cooperation between their militaries during the 8th Sino-Pakistani Defence and Security Talks held in Beijing. In reality, such a comprehensive collaboration germinated soon after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the First China-Pakistan Defence and Security Talks having held in March 2002. Both Beijing and Islamabad kept the intimacy at the low burner for too long, not to antagonize Washington.
Now, under the changed circumstances, those collaborations have attained functional dimensions. In May, Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani visited Beijing, apparently to deflect mounting pressure from Washington, Delhi and Kabul that it was sheltering Islamic terror. "China is the only country that has taken a sympathetic stand for Pakistan after the Bin Laden operation," Talat Masood, a political analyst and a retired Pakistani general, said. Masood added, "This visit is important in the sense that it could counter US pressure on Pakistan. It shows Pakistan wants to say we also have some cards to play." He cautioned: "If the US and the Indian pressure continue, Pakistan can say China is behind us. Don't think we are isolated, we have a potential superpower with us."
On June 23, military delegations from Pakistan and China signed two agreements, consolidating existing cooperation between their armed forces at the conclusion of the first round of military talks at Pakistan's Joint Staff Headquarters in Chaklala. Chinese Defence Ministry's Deputy Foreign Affairs chief, Maj. Gen. Jia Xiaoning, led the Chinese delegation in talks with the Pakistani Director General of Joint Staff, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Asif. Lately, Beijing has also agreed to build several nuclear reactors in Pakistan.
This Pak-China 'ganging up' is too popular at the grass root level in both Pakistan and China. "At this crucial juncture of history, I cannot say anybody is standing with Pakistan except China," Pakistan's opposition leader and former PM, Nawaz Sharif, said. Kerry Dumbaugh, an analyst at the Centre for Naval Analyses, said Pakistan's pro-China stance on issues such as Taiwan, which Beijing considers an integral part of its own territory, is a key factor in Beijing's support for Islamabad. Besides, "Pakistan serves as an advocate or a conduit for China in the Islamic world," Dumbaugh said.
Bangladesh too subscribes to the one-China policy and is a major player within the Islamic Ummah. Yet, our government has been ill at ease in dealings with Beijing due to the quintessential Indian pressures. Under the changed ambiance, Dhaka must gather guts to shift gear toward pursuing a more independent foreign policy. Such a stance may also serve to deflect some of the public anger being displayed in street agitations by a bolder and more aggressive nationalist-Islamist brand that seems determined to bring an end to the excessive Indian high-handedness in our national affairs. At the same time, our armed forces must ready themselves to face all the dangers lurking in the horizon.