As George W. Bush limps towards the finish line of his turbulent presidency, two recent events on the other side of the globe, in the region that has been the main battleground in his ‘war on terror’, are of particular interest. One, the ascendency of Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, to the presidency of Pakistan. The other, the decision by the 45-member Nuclear Suppliers’ Group to grant a ‘waiver’ to India, after intense lobbying by the White House. The ‘waiver’ clears the way for India, a nuclear weapons state, to buy nuclear components and fuel for use in its civilian power plants. The interest of the Bush administration in this whole process has been strong and is indicative of America’s changing policy in South Asia – be tougher with Pakistan and court India.
Under a unique arrangement, the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. watchdog, and suppliers have agreed to do nuclear business with India. In doing so, they have accepted the reality of the country’s nuclear arsenal. India refuses to sign the Western-backed Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Its argument is that the treaty is discriminatory against countries not recognized as nuclear powers. A separate agreement with the United States is yet to be approved by Congress. Only then will America be able to sell nuclear material and technology to India for civilian use. But India will soon be able to do business with other nuclear suppliers. An agreement with France is close.
The rise of Zardari to the presidency in Pakistan, and India’s welcome into the nuclear club, may appear to be unconnected events. But they are parts of the same strategic environment in which the great powers, America and Russia, as well as the emerging countries and regional players such as China, India and Pakistan, have to live. They are rivals, as well as allies. The long-term goal of each is to outdo the others economically and militarily. But they must cooperate in the short run as they pursue their objective.
There is a realization in Beijing, Delhi and Islamabad that the policy of the Bush administration has been too aggressive and militaristic. It exacerbated the phenomenon of terrorism which it professed to defeat. The toll in civilian deaths, injuries, broken families and exiled refugees is enormous. The anti-American sentiment has provided fuel to the fires of violence. It has created a serious threat to the stability of Pakistan and increasingly in parts of China and India. The recent bomb attacks in Delhi, killing and wounding scores of shoppers, are the latest sign of India’s vulnerability to the growing militancy in the region. Even claims of the much-heralded American military surge and the resultant decline in the violence in Iraq should be seen in context.
Bob Woodward, the veteran reporter of the Washington Post, speaks of a secret operation of targeted assassinations that has brought down violence in Iraq. I recently asked an Iraqi researcher, just back from Baghdad, after a meeting at a London think-tank what she thought was behind the reduction in violence. Her reply: “There is less killing because there is no one to kill in mixed Shi’a-Sunni communities. The unfortunate have already been killed. The fortunate have fled to safer places in Iraq, turning it into a deeply segregated society, or fled the country.” Even so, civilian deaths in Iraq often go un-noticed in the international media while America boasts about a reduction in violence after the surge.
George W. Bush sits today amid the vast wreckage left by his presidency. The two events I mentioned earlier – the election of Zardari in Pakistan and the entry of India into the nuclear club – have an important meaning for America’s policy after Bush, irrespective of the result of the November 2008 election. The appetite for bloodthirsty militarism is diminished in the Bush White House. The simple-minded policy of reliance on Pakistan’s military dictator, now deposed General Pervez Musharraf, in the ‘war on terror’ has failed. In the court of public opinion in the region and beyond, America stands in the dock. What can possibly be achieved in these circumstances with the same policies?
In Zardari as president, Pakistan has a leader that America can trust. He is controversial and weak. He needs to work with the military – something the Washington establishment prefers. The Pakistani military’s need for American aid remains great. So, in the end, it is likely to listen to Washington, putting the history of hostility and distrust for the People’s Party led by Zardari behind – for now.
The hope in Washington is that the coalition of Zardari, the civilian politician in the front, and the military can keep the rest of the Pakistani opposition at bay. The proclamation by President Zardari that he would fight the Islamist militants will go down well in Washington. However, with powerful agencies of the Pakistani military close to the fundamentalist groups which they have traditionally supported, there must remain doubts about his ability to deliver. The recent presidential directive, which allows the US forces to launch attacks inside Pakistan from Afghanistan, has also begun to cause tensions with the Pakistani military. It cannot appear to be standing by as American military incursions take place, for fear of inflaming the public opinion in Pakistan even more.
America’s new approach towards India, a secure democracy, is a recognition that the main bulwark against militancy cannot be Pakistan. It has to be Pakistan’s rival, neighbor and the second most populous country after China. It marks the end of the traditional U.S. preference for Pakistan during the Cold War and again in the last seven years since 9/11. However, the rules of the game with India have to be different.
India is too large and independent to be dictated to. Its economy is growing at an astonishing rate. The west needs India as much as India needs the west. America’s evolving policy is an acknowledgment of these realities. On the one hand, with Pakistan facing escalating violence and disorder, the main frontier against turmoil is to be India. On the other, it would, in the long run, serve as a counter to the growing military and economic power of China, where the Communist Party is supreme.
The above article appeared in Online Journal on 16 September 2008.