July 04, 2011

Bonding with America: A BJP initiative

July 02, 2011 7:31:52 PM

Chandan Mitra


The takeaway from a three-day visit to Washington was that US policy-makers are deeply concerned about the future of Pakistan, but groping for a strategy

There was no fresh article in these columns last week because I was in the US as part of a delegation of BJP MPs, led by Mr Arun Jaitley, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha. Mr Janardhan Swamy, a first time Lok Sabha MP from Karnataka who worked in the US for a decade, was the third member of the group. This was probably the first occasion that a team of party MPs visited the American capital for wide-ranging discussions with top Administration officials, Senators and Congressmen, academics and strategic studies experts. During the three days we spent at Washington DC, Mr Jaitley addressed the prestigious Heritage Foundation and led a round-table discussion at the equally prestigious Brookings Institution. I had the privilege of addressing the India Club at the World Bank where I met a large number of Stephanians and other Delhi acquaintances. The initiative was taken by the party to send us to the US because the leadership felt that mutual exchange of views on issues of common concern would be beneficial, particularly in projecting the BJP as a responsible Opposition aiming to regain power in 2014.

Naturally, our discussions with Administration officials and politicians centered around South Asia — the most dangerous place in the world today. The future of Pakistan has been worrying Americans a great deal and we found them asking us about US policy in that regard. Our visit coincided with President Barack Obama announcing a drawdown schedule for US troops in Afghanistan, with 33,000 to be pulled out this year. We sought to impress upon US policy-makers the danger of abandoning Afghanistan prematurely, pointing out that the Karzai Government was yet to stabilise or extend control over the entire country. The Taliban posed a clear and present danger, particularly in Afghanistan’s south-eastern provinces, and their ability to strike at will had not been significantly curbed by the removal of Osama bin Laden from the scene.

To the average American, though, US war aims appear to have been achieved by the swift and surgical operation in Abbottabad. They want the boys back home and don’t want to see bodybags streaming out of military aircraft. Further, the American economy has not fully recovered from the 2008 meltdown; jobs are still in short supply; industry is in the doldrums; exports are not picking up adequately. So, further expenditure on sustaining military operations overseas, be in Afghanistan or Libya, is not a popular idea. Mr Obama faces an uphill re-election battle in the autumn of 2012. While his popularity graph soared when Osama bin Laden was killed, it has begun dipping under the weight of a sluggish economy. He has to walk a tightrope, balancing the need to play globocop on the one hand and generate jobs on the other. There is bipartisan consensus on continuing the war against terror, but no agreement on how much should be spent to keep the war going.

In this context, aid to Pakistan figures high on US policy-makers’ minds. We were invariably asked by Senators and Congressmen if we had alternatives to suggest on the issue of continuing to engage with Pakistan. Mr Jaitley posed a counter-query to which none had a clear answer: Engagement was fine, but the real question was which kind of Pakistan would one be engaging with? Would it be a democratic, modernising Pakistan or an Islamist, Talibanised Pakistan? And where would that country’s Army and ISI fit in this scheme of things? Obviously, both the US and India would have stakes in seeing a democratic Pakistan stabilise and prosper, but neither has the ability to determine the course of events in that country.

We shared our common concern at the radicalisation of Pakistan’s armed forces, especially evident from the Pakistani Taliban attack on the naval base at Mehran near Karachi. It was clear to all that the attack, although eventually repulsed, could not have taken place without collusion from within, which in turn demonstrated the extent ofjihadi infiltration that had happened over the years. This was the main subject of discussion at Brookings whose deputy director, Mr Bruce Riedel, has recently published a seminal work on the radicalisation of Pakistan’s armed forces.

We face a Catch-22 here: Squeezing Pakistan economically would lead to even greater domestic unrest and further erode the legitimacy of its weak civilian Government, while supporting the regime with financial and military aid could lead to its falling into the wrong hands. Americans are convinced about the duplicitous role of the Pakistani Establishment; most of those we met believed that Islamabad was aware of Osama bin-Laden’s whereabouts but did not divulge it in order to extract continued assistance from Washington. Republicans are, understandably more hawkish than their Democratic Party counterparts on the subject of aid to Pakistan. But even the hardliners see no real alternative to engagement.

I also found inadequate recognition of China’s burgeoning role in the geo-politics of South Asia. I pointed out Beijing’s ambitious plan to build a rail link across the mighty Karakoram down to Gwadar in Balochistan, a warm water port built by China that lies barely 400 nautical miles east of the strategic Straits of Hormuz through which the bulk of Gulf oil is shipped. That China is busy encircling India with what it poetically describes as a garland of pearls is a reality not sufficiently recognised by many strategic studies experts. Further, it is also not fully understood that there is a real danger that the Indian Ocean will soon become an arena of big power conflict, with India and China competing for shipping lanes to and from the Horn of Africa where both are engaged in acquiring oil fields. American experts suggested to us that India should be more proactive in developing stronger bonds with Japan, Australia and South Africa in order to compete more effectively with China.

We had expected Americans to raise the nuclear deal issue with us in a big way, but this did not feature as a major irritant. The few who asked only wanted to know, primarily out of academic interest, why the BJP, having pioneered the post-Cold War bonding between the two democracies, took a hostile position on the deal. US officials also expressed their disappointment on the nuclear liability legislation, arguing that it had denied a level-playing field to American equipment suppliers. It was left to us to forcefully argue that the BJP would never be a party to the dilution of India’s national interests although stronger ties with the US was very much part of our agenda. One thing though was for certain: Americans take the BJP very seriously and are overly keen to develop closer ties, which incidentally was also my takeaway from an NDA MPs’ delegation with which I visited China in 2009. Clearly, big powers view the BJP as a future party of Government. The bi-polarity of Indian politics is now a globally recognised reality.

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