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'US will hand Afghanistan over to Pak'

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

On Sunday, US President Barack Obama suggested to The New York Times that hope in Afghanistan lay in reaching out to the “moderate Taliban”. For India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), this is their worst nightmare coming true. After handing the “moderate Taliban” a share of the power in Kabul, say Indian officials, America will pull out troops, allowing the Pakistani army to run Afghanistan on its behalf.

True, the US’ immediate plans are to boost its presence in Afghanistan by another 17,000 soldiers. But that is being seen as a temporary, Iraq-style surge, aimed at putting in place a suitable government before pulling out the forces.

Top Indian policymakers tell Business Standard that the Obama administration’s goal is clear: rather than trying to win the war in Afghanistan, simply aim at bottling terrorism inside the Pakistan-Afghanistan area, and monitor the borders electronically to prevent any “leakage” of jehadis.

An American “virtual cage” is already in place to keep the jehadis inside. Senior Indian officials point out that Pakistan’s immigration network has been entirely computerised with US help. When travellers’ passports are swiped at immigration, the information goes in real time to US intelligence agencies. The Container Security Initiative allows US Customs to monitor every cargo container that passes through a Pakistani port. It is no accident that, since 9/11, not a single terror attack has reached American soil.

What worries Indian policymakers is that none of this protects India. The MEA has discovered, in its engagement with Pakistan over the 26/11 Mumbai terror strikes, that nobody is really in control in that country. Explains a senior official, “Pakistan’s government was ready to sign or say anything that we wanted them to. But having signed, they are completely unable to deliver.”

Even if Islamabad wants to deliver, South Block officials say, the frightening reality is that it can’t. The government cannot rely on its police and investigative agencies; the army has discovered over the preceding year that it does not have the capability to control the tribal areas. And now, the recent attack on Sri Lanka’s cricketers in Lahore heralds a new menace: it is the first time the Lashkar-e-Toiba has struck within Pakistan.

The Lashkar is easily Pakistan’s most formidable radical group. Musharraf cracked down on the Jaish-e-Mohammad in 2002 and 2003, leading to several foiled attempts on his life. But he dared not confront the Lashkar, with its far better organised military, political, civil and financial structure. After 26/11, General Kayani moved against the Lashkar. But he has quickly discovered that even the Pakistani army is unable to put the Lashkar down.

MEA officials say, “The Pakistan army has been badly bloodied in the tribal areas; it is in no state to take on the Lashkar. Today, like a typical military hierarchy in the face of defeat, it has turned inward looking. The Pakistan army does not want to be a part of a big anti-terror push.”

To deal with multiple agencies in Pakistan, which are no longer acting in unison, South Block is coming around to the belief that India needs multiple foreign policies. “We need a different Pakistan policy for the government; a different Pakistan policy for the army; different policies for the political parties, for business, for civil society.”

The unpredictability within Pakistan is multiplied, say Indian officials, by the fragmentation within Pakistan’s radical fringe. During the anti-Soviet jehad in the 1980s and 1990s, Pakistan dealt with just one jehadi leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In 2005, when negotiating a ceasefire in Waziristan, Pakistan had 17 tribal Shoora (council) chiefs sitting at the table. Now there are dozens of shooras, often with competing demands.

While physically moving out of this snake pit of ‘jehadism’, the US will continue to exercise influence by controlling the Pakistan army, as it has for decades, through the flow of arms and grants. In this, the US has little option; the Pakistan army controls a nuclear arsenal.

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First Published: Wed, March 11 2009. 00:20 IST