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Ajai Shukla: Down to the last friend

The long relationship of convenience between Washington and Islamabad is deeply troubled again but far from ended

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The long relationship of convenience between Washington and Islamabad is deeply troubled again but far from ended. On the eve of his retirement, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff (backed by his boss, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta), baldly accused Pakistan of supporting jehadi networks. But both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have toned down the Pentagon’s accusations; and Mr Mullen himself, in a subsequent press interview indicated that his outrage was not about ISI’s links with terrorists. He was angry mainly because those terrorists were now killing US soldiers in Afghanistan.

Mr Mullen, in case anyone does not yet know, had accused Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) of using the Haqqani network – the virulent, North Waziristan-based jehadi faction that holds sway in the Afghan provinces of Paktia, Paktika and Khost – as a proxy to further its interests in Afghanistan. In his words, “The Haqqani network acts as a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.”

Five days later, after Pakistani anger and US backtracking, Mr Mullen was asked by National Public Radio why he had timed his bombshell for now. Mr Mullen answered, “…I am losing American soldiers. The Haqqanis are killing American soldiers. And from that perspective, I think it’s got to be addressed, which is the reason I spoke to it.”

In case anyone had missed the message, Mr Mullen went on to say, “…it is the intensity, the severity, and, quite frankly, for me as a senior military officer in America, the fact that it is so intently focused right now on killing Americans that I felt it necessary to speak up.”

Mr Mullen’s anger at Pakistan’s systematic sponsorship of terrorism only boils over when US soldiers are killed.

The US chief, who has gallantly endured severe passive smoker risk during some 30 meetings with his Pakistani counterpart, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, admitted that he had been expressing concern since 2008 about Rawalpindi’s cohabitation with the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). But, since action against LeT has been confined to declaring it a terrorist network (with no mention of its official sponsors), the unintended message is: stick to killing Indians; hands off Americans.

For these reasons and others, New Delhi is not holding its breath in the expectation of tough action against Pakistan. Indian policy makers recognised that the Washington-Islamabad equation, given its transactional nature, will settle back into equilibrium, albeit with a greater level of mutual loathing. But the trend line suggests that the relation will eventually become unsustainable, eroded steadily by a combination of developments: the expanding reach of Pakistan-based jehad; growing radicalisation in mainstream Pakistan; the related upsurge of anti-Americanism; growing US capability for cross-border intervention in Pakistan; and Pakistan’s declining importance as a logistical lifeline as US forces draw down in Afghanistan and the Northern Delivery Network grows in capacity.

That Pakistan recognises this is evident from its almost frantic embrace of China. And the vital question for Indian policy makers is: how substantive is Beijing’s ardour for Islamabad? New Delhi too easily swallows Pakistan’s portrayal of the “all-weather friendship” rather than Beijing’s noticeably more measured enthusiasm. Even given China’s post-1949 strategic tradition of balancing India in South Asia, the unquestioning belief that Beijing is unchangingly, implacably hostile to India is a self-fulfilling prophecy that condemns New Delhi to the strategic back foot in South Asia, boxed in by a numerically and economically superior axis. While this is precisely the impression that Islamabad wants, Beijing’s recent actions and statements are hardly those of a country eager to be Islamabad’s new superpower patron.

Soon after Osama bin Laden’s killing in May, Pakistan announced that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani had invited Beijing to build a naval base at Gwadar. In many Indian eyes, Gwadar represents the apogee of Han deviousness, the most valuable of the “string of pearls” with which China will garrotte India. But Beijing quickly slapped down Pakistan, officially declaring that it had never heard of such a proposal. Having contributed $200 million, some 80 per cent of the overall cost of developing Gwadar as a container terminal, China seems content without a custom-built naval base on the Makran coast. Besides, Gwadar is hardly the strategic godsend that Islamabad projects. Tucked into the remote Baluchistan-Iran border, land access to Gwadar runs through areas ravaged by Baluchi militancy.

Next, credible reports suggest that General Kayani, spooked by the bin Laden raid and worried by the possibility of more such violations of Pakistani sovereignty, has asked Beijing for a formal defence pact. But with China clearly unwilling to be drawn into conflict over Pakistan, there has been public silence about this.

In July, when the US held back $800 million in military aid, Pakistan insinuated that China would make good that shortfall. But Beijing quickly clarified that China would provide assistance only for economic and social development.

There is growing scepticism within Chinese companies about the safety of operating in Pakistan. Last week, China Kingho Group, a major Chinese coal mining company, walked away from a $19-billion deal to mine coal in southern Sindh, citing security concerns. That blow was softened somewhat when Global Mining, another Chinese company, committed $3 billion for a mining-cum-power generation project in the same area. But, as the security climate worsens, China’s ventures in Pakistan are steadily drying up.

Despite this, China remains Pakistan’s last hope — hence Mr Gilani’s syrupy oratory when China’s Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu came calling last week while Mullen was belabouring Pakistan. With Sino-Pak friendship traditionally described as “higher than mountains, and deeper than oceans”, Mr Gilani mawkishly tagged on, “stronger than steel and sweeter than honey”. But Pakistani rhetoric will hardly prevent a rising China, eager for global respect, from re-evaluating a relationship that was based on nuclear and missile proliferation, arms supply and crude balance of power calculations in South Asia.

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First Published: Tue, October 04 2011. 00:51 IST