A tactical blunder

Published : Sep 29, 2001 00:00 IST

India's hurried offer of total support to the United States in its war against terrorism can lead to severe diplomatic setbacks for the country vis-a-vis Pakistan.

THE clumsy reaction of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in New Delhi to the events that shook the world in September, has angered the Opposition and divided the ruling coalition. If Home Minister L.K. Advani and External Affairs and Defence Minister Jaswant Singh had their way, India's principled foreign policy, which has stood it in good stead for 50 years, would have been sacrificed in the quest for illusory diplomatic gains. Both the Ministers initially sought to interpret the events from a narrow viewpoint. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Advani repeatedly emphasised India's close security links with Israel and other Western countries in the fight against terrorism.

Despite opposition from some of his Cabinet colleagues, Advani reiterated the government's offer of bases and logistical support to the U.S., although Washington apparently ignored the initial Indian offer. Human Resource Development Minister Murli Manohar Joshi and Information Technology Minister Pramod Mahajan have been critical of the government's handling of the situation, especially the "rush" to offer total support to the U.S.

Jaswant Singh now says that the question of offering Indian bases and airspace has not arisen. However, he maintained that the U.S. had not made a formal request for the use of Indian bases and other military facilities. India's offer is all the more surprising since several U.S. officials, such as the Deputy Defence Secretary, have vowed to wipe out some countries from the map of the world. There was even muted talk in the corridors of power in Washington of launching nuclear strikes against terrorist bases.

Both Advani and Jaswant Singh seem to be of the firm opinion that India's salvation lies in strengthening its alliance with Israel and the U.S. Arab diplomats were aghast when Advani, at the inaugural of the Delhi Book Fair a few days after the attacks in New York and Washington, chose to quote Benjamin Netanyahu, the former right-wing Prime Minister of Israel, on the issue of combating terrorism. Netanyahu is a well-known proponent of the concept of "Greater Israel" encompassing the occupied territories. He has even criticised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for not being tough with Arafat and the Palestinians.

India was among the few countries that expressed unqualified support to the U.S. as soon as news about the terrorist attacks broke out. The only other countries to do so were the traditional allies of the U.S. - Australia, Britain, Canada, Israel, Japan and Kuwait. Several North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies of the U.S. have expressed their doubts about the path the Bush administration is currently taking.

Pakistan had to be virtually arm-twisted by the U.S. into cooperation. But once Pakistan went the whole hog, India became a peripheral actor in the so-called war against terrorism. However, evidently the Bush administration does not want to keep India totally out of the picture. The U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill, met the three service chiefs despite Islamabad's precondition that Israel and India be kept out of the war.

China and other Asian countries are of the view that the U.S. must consult the governments in the region before launching attacks on Asian countries. China too faces a festering Islamist problem in Xinjiang. China has good relations with Israel and the U.S. but this has not stopped Beijing from being critical of Israel's policies against the Palestinians and speaking out against U.S. double standards on terrorism. In fact, China has linked its support to U.S. actions against terrorism to a demand that Washington help China in its fight against separatism in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Taiwan is being encouraged by the U.S. to resist unification. Washington provides tacit support to separatist forces in Tibet and Xinjiang.

New Delhi on its part has not made any such demands on Washington though the U.S. has been saying that India has been a victim of global terrorism. The Bush administration has not thought it proper to identify terrorist outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen operating in Jammu and Kashmir, with their bases in Pakistan. Instead, indications are that Pakistani perceptions on the Kashmir problem will now get a more sympathetic hearing in Washington. Washington's perceptible tilt towards New Delhi is likely to be reversed.

French President Jacques Chirac has said that he preferred military action against terrorism to be under the auspices of the United Nations. Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga made a pointed remark that outfits supporting the Tamil Tigers, arguably among the most notorious of terrorist groups in the world, were allowed to function out of Western countries.

Diplomats from West Asia are of the opinion that India should have reacted more cautiously. In fact, the BJP-led government was among the few governments in the world to welcome the American National Missile Defence (NMD) and Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) initiatives, only to backtrack subsequently.

Arab diplomats are also of the opinion that the U.S. could use the campaign as a pretext to establish a permanent presence in the Asian region, which has the world's largest energy reserves. They point out that the new situation has arisen after the failure of the "New World Order".

The international community was fed up with the Bush administration's penchant for unilateralism in world affairs. "The whole geo-strategic situation is changing. A lot depends on how China and Russia will react to the new situation," a veteran diplomat said.

One West Asian diplomat said that India should remember that it is a neighbour of Arab countries. Critical of the "narrow thinking of the Indian leadership", he said India was deluding itself into believing that U.S. would ignore Pakistani interests, including those related to Kashmir.

"Kashmir is of no geo-political interest to the U.S.," he said. The Indian government's short-sightedness stems from its perception of all issues through the "Pakistan angle", the envoy said. India should realise that the U.S. has "no permanent friends, only permanent interests". He pointed out that 90 per cent of those suspected of involvement in the recent attacks were Gulf Arabs, coming from prosperous families. This is indicative of the extent of the alienation of the U.S. among Arabs.

"By choosing Israel as an ally, you are isolating yourself. The Arabs can never be subdued by Israel and the U.S.," he said. He said the Arab governments did not react adversely because they are aware that the Indian public opinion is with them, not Israel. The Indian leadership has played into the hands of Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who according to him, is playing to the Arab gallery by bracketing India with Israel.

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