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Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

The visits of senior Bush administration officials to New Delhi help bring down the tension on the border, but the moves of the U.S. are also seen as part of a long-term plan to entrench itself in the subcontinent on the pretext of combating terrorism.

NEW DELHI witnessed a flurry of high-level visits in mid-January, mostly from Washington. Secretary of State Colin Powell was the most prominent among the U.S. visitors. U.S. diplomatic hyperactivity vis-a-vis the region was evident from the list of other senior U.S. officials who came to New Delhi in quick succession. The most recent visitors among them were Ambassador on counter-terrorism Francis X. Taylor, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) chief Robert S. Mueller and Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) chief Thomas Wilson.

Interestingly, it was during the DIA chief's visit that Lt. Gen. Kapil Vij, the commander of 2 Corps, was summarily transferred from his post. Reports in the media said that it was U.S. pressure on the Indian government that got the officer, who commanded around 60,000 troops on the western border, shunted out. The report that the General had moved his troops and armoured corps dangerously close to Pakistani formations, has not been denied. Neither has been the story that satellite imagery of the troop positions was provided by the U.S.

Military and diplomatic circles are surprised that the Indian government did not object to the U.S. taking such keen interest in the Indian Army's forward deployment at a critical time. The U.S. is reportedly making available satellite imagery to both India and Pakistan, in its efforts to prevent a war. The government has said that Lt. Gen. Vij's transfer was a routine one and that it was not effected at the behest of Washington. U.S. Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill refuted suggestions about U.S. involvement in the transfer. But it is no secret that the U.S. has been urging caution on both sides. Blackwill said that the Bush administration's involvement in South Asia was not going to be an "episodic" one, as was the case earlier. He said that the high-level visits by U.S. officials were indicative of the transformation in Indo-U.S. relations.

However, indications are that Washington continues to give greater importance to its ally of long standing in the region, Pakistan, as it remains crucial to the U.S. gameplan for Central Asia and West Asia. Blackwill made it a point to laud President Pervez Musharraf's speech of January 12 to the Pakistani people. He termed it "historical", and added that it transcended the internal disputes in his country and went beyond the issues that divided India and Pakistan. Similar views were echoed by the U.S. Secretary of State and other visiting U.S. dignitaries.

Colin Powell, speaking to the media in New Delhi, praised the steps taken by Musharraf against terrorist organisations and individuals in Pakistan. He urged New Delhi and Islamabad to resume the dialogue process on the basis of Musharraf's speech and actions taken subsequently by Pakistan to combat terrorism. However, Powell was diplomatic enough to suggest that it was up to the Indian government to judge whether the steps constituted the basis for a resumption of bilateral dialogue. For the record, Powell also stated in New Delhi that the U.S. did not wish to mediate in the dispute.

But the facts on the ground tell a different story. Since the Kargil War, New Delhi has been dependent to a large extent on U.S. help to get out of political and military quagmires. The Bush administration is urging New Delhi to defuse the tense situation along the western borders. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government does not seem to be averse to U.S. mediation to sort out its problems with Islamabad. At the same time, it wants to keep organisations such as the United Nations at arms' length.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had wanted to visit New Delhi in late January, in order to help speed up the efforts to normalise the situation in the subcontinent. New Delhi gave him the cold shoulder, politely telling him that the timing was not appropriate. Annan, however went ahead with his visits to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The impression that has been created is that New Delhi would prefer to depend on Washington rather than on the U.N. for help to defuse the tension in the region. In Islamabad, Annan urged both India and Pakistan to withdraw troops immediately from the front and resolve differences, including the Kashmir issue, through peaceful means.

Blackwill is of the view that the Powell visit helped lower the temperature in the region. He was recently in Kashmir along with the DIA chief. Both were briefed by the 15 and 16 Indian Army Corps Commander on the situation along the Line of Control (LoC). After the visit Blackwill said that he got the impression that though the situation along the LoC was "still dangerous", the level of infiltration may be slowing down. But he hastened to add that it would take some more time to come to a definite conclusion on the matter. He said that infiltration could have reduced as winter had set in.

External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh told the media during the Powell visit that India would resume talks with Pakistan only after Islamabad translated its assertions on countering cross-border terrorism into action on the ground. India wants Pakistan to extradite promptly the 14 Indian nationals on the list of 20 it gave Pakistan in the first week of January. Pakistani officials told this correspondent that according to their information, underworld don Dawood Ibrahim and his friends were in the United Arab Emirates (story on page 30). According to them, the wanted Khalistanis were in a West European country.

Defence Minister George Fernandes said in the last week of January that Indian forces would pull back only after the government was convinced that Pakistan was serious about curbing infiltration and stopped providing logistical support to militants operating in Jammu and Kashmir. Fernandes, on his return to New Delhi after his six-day visit to the U.S., emphasised that defence relations with Washington had been further strengthened. In this context, he mentioned the signing of the bilateral General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), under which both countries will share information relating to security and terrorism. In a statement issued after the Joint Working Group (JWG) meeting, the two sides emphasised that international cooperation and national commitment were necessary to defeat terrorism.

When Fernandes was in the U.S., the State Department's Ambassador on Counter-Terrorism Francis X. Taylor was in New Delhi with a 13-member delegation to take part in a JWG meeting with India on counter-terrorism. The JWG discussed various ways of carrying out joint investigations and sharing intelligence. These include the sharing of radio intercepts and improving border management. Providing satellite pictures may be part of the understanding, but considerable importance is placed by the Indian side on U.S. expertise to improve India's "border management". The External Affairs Ministry has said that the two countries will launch a "pilot project for improving border management".

Taylor said that this exercise would help India maintain border security. According to him, this constituted a key part of the campaign against terrorism. Taylor told mediapersons that issues relating to "domestic terrorism" had come up for discussion with Indian officials. There will be a high-level meeting involving the two countries in February to discuss cyber-terrorism. Taylor said that one of the goals of the Bush administration was to encourage India and Pakistan to exchange evidence relating to terrorism. He was of the view that it would take three to four years to stamp out the Al Qaeda network, which has established cells in more than 60 countries. This is yet another indication that the Bush administration plans to stay on in the region under the pretext of combating terrorism.

Mueller, the FBI chief, was in the Indian capital when the terrorist attack on the American Centre in Kolkata took place. Although Home Minister L.K. Advani was quick to put the blame on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Dubai mafia, Mueller refused to rush to a judgment. He said that he would prefer to wait for the facts to emerge. However, he was happy to provide "any assistance in the probe of the incident to the Indian investigating agencies". West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, however, said that he was against the involvement of the FBI in the investigations.

Advani has also clarified that the FBI will not be directly involved in the case. However, the agency is said to be very active in the country since it was allowed by the BJP-led government last year to set up shop in the capital. "There is very close cooperation between our agencies and Indian agencies. They are working in the most intimate way," Blackwill said. He went on to add that "all aspects have changed in Indo-U.S. relations". Both India and Pakistan are now viewed by the Bush administration as close and integral allies in the so-called fight against terrorism.

THE U.S response to the launch of the short-range version of the Agni was muted in comparison with that of the other Western countries. Colin Powell said that he did not think that the missile test would "inflame the situation particularly". He, however, said that he wished that India had not performed the tests "at this time of high tension". Only Russia has come out with a friendly statement after the test.

India's Foreign Office spokesperson Nirupama Rao said that the launch was part of India's efforts to indigenise and "guarantee credible nuclear deterrence". She clarified that the test was not intended to be a warning against any specific country. She emphasised that the timing of the test was dictated solely by technical factors. Pakistan has characterised the test as an act of "serious provocation".

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