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Diplomatic concerns

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

Secretary of State Colin Powell seeks to allay the fears aroused by his statement on Kashmir made in Pakistan, but New Delhi remains not fully convinced.

THERE has been a reality check in the corridors of power in New Delhi after the short but significant visit of the United States Secretary of State General Colin Powell to the subcontinent in mid-October. It is evident that the September 11 terror attacks in the U.S. have changed the geo-strategic equations in the region dramatically. Obviously the U.S. had tilted towards India after President Bill Clinton's visit in early 2000. But now once again Pakistan has become a "frontline" state for the U.S. and occupies a pre-eminent position as it did for most part of the Cold War period, particularly during the war in Afghanistan in the late 1970s and the 1980s.

When the new crisis erupted, the Indian government was the first to offer unconditional help to the U.S. But with Pakistan agreeing to be a frontline ally in yet another war in Afghanistan, the Indian offer made little strategic sense. The unseemly haste of External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh to offer unsolicited help to the U.S. was in marked contrast to the reactions of other governments in the region.

Besides Pakistan, only Uzbekistan has offered bases to the U.S. military for its 'Operation Enduring Freedom'. The other immediate neighbours of Afghanistan, such as Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, although cash-strapped, preferred caution to foolhardiness. Iran has condemned the use of military force by the U.S. China, while being politically supportive of the military initiative, has indicated that it prefers the action against terrorism to be coordinated under the auspices of the United Nations. President Jiang Zemin urged President George Bush, who was in Shanghai to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) summit, to ensure that only terrorist bases are targeted. Many countries in the region feel that a lot of innocent lives are being lost in the action in Afghanistan.

India, on the other hand, was more preoccupied with the new relationship between Washington and Islamabad. The West until recently seemed to be giving President General Pervez Musharraf and Pakistan the diplomatic long rope. Western financial institutions have now started moves to bail out the Pakistani economy. The resumption of U.S. military aid to Pakistan is also on the cards.

Colin Powell, who visited Islamabad before coming to New Delhi, seems to have struck a strong personal rapport with Musharraf. Sharing the podium with the Pakistani ruler at a joint press conference, Powell declared that Kashmir was central to India-Pakistan relations and that it could be resolved if all parties engaged with a willingness to address concerns in a mutually acceptable way.

The Agra Summit broke down because Pakistan insisted that Kashmir be treated as the "core" issue. India has been quite consistent in its stance that Kashmir could only be part of a comprehensive and composite dialogue to improve bilateral relations. Powell's remarks in Islamabad are construed as an explicit endorsement of the Pakistani position on the issue. No wonder there were some red faces in the Indian establishment when Powell reached Delhi a few hours after addressing the media in Pakistan.

The reception he got was naturally a trifle chilly. Powell's "good friend" Jaswant Singh was not there to receive him at the airport. George Fernandes, who was reinstated as Defence Minister on October 15, a day before Powell's arrival in the subcontinent, announced that the Indian Army had decided to take a "proactive" line towards Pakistan.

Jaswant Singh, when he held additional charge of the Defence portfolio, had visited Washington in the first week of October, just after the suicide attack on the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly building. Powell had called the attack a terrible terrorist act against a "government facility". During his "short, working visit" of 20 hours to Delhi, Powell sought to reassure his hosts that there was no major shift in the overall U.S. policy towards the region. The bulk of the discussions Powell held with Jaswant Singh centred on Afghanistan and the related issue of terrorism and Kashmir. The U.S. prescriptions for solving the Kashmir issue are not palatable to New Delhi, especially after Powell underlined in Pakistan the centrality of the Kashmir issue. In New Delhi, Powell tried to backtrack a little on his earlier position by telling the Indian media that what he actually said in Islamabad was that Kashmir was "a central issue" in the context of bilateral relations.

'When I said Kashmir was central to India-Pakistan ties, I meant it was important," he said. He stressed the importance of India and Pakistan keeping open the dialogue process. The U.S., he said, was a friend of both countries and "would be of help, some way or the other". Powell did not retract from Washington's long-held notion that Kashmir was "a dangerous flashpoint". In Islamabad, Powell had called for "political, peaceful and diplomatic means" to resolve the Kashmir issue. He went on to add that the issue could not be resolved "through violence or reliance on force but with a determined respect for human rights".

New Delhi has been making loud appeals to Washington to help it combat "state-sponsored terrorism" in the Kashmir Valley. In an anguished letter to Bush after the attack on the Jammu and Kashmir legislature building, Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee requested Washington to restrain Pakistan urgently from backing international terrorism in Kashmir. Critics of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government's foreign policy allege that this is an implicit invitation to the U.S. to intervene in the internal affairs of the country in the garb of combating international terrorism. However, during Powell's visit, the Indian government once again officially articulated its position against any third-party intervention in Kashmir.

THE Vajpayee government wants to keep the U.S. out of a mediating role in Kashmir but at the same time is not averse to taking its help in combating terrorism in the Valley. Addressing India's concerns, Powell said that the "problem of terrorism was not limited to Afghanistan. The United States and India are united against terrorism, and that includes the terrorism that has been directed against India as well."

Senior American officials have been assuring their Indian counterparts that both countries are "natural allies" in the battle against "global terrorism". The Bush administration is happy that India is unequivocally with the U.S. on this issue. Its stand is that there is no neutral ground in this fight. At the same time the U.S. would prefer India to keep a low profile for the time being in its own fight against "cross-border terrorism" and tone down its rivalry with Pakistan. The Bush administration is of the opinion that the U.S. military action in Afghanistan also addresses India's "fundamental problems" regarding terrorism. The argument is that the "terrorist camps" in Afghanistan are also used against India.

The decision to enlist Pakistan in the war against terrorism was a strategic one. If U.S. and Pakistani officials are to be believed, there was no quid pro quo involved. Indian officials have also been reassured that there is no question of the U.S. permanently hyphenating India with Pakistan and that there is no change in the U.S. position on Kashmir in the light of the recent events.

New and deep patterns of cooperation are emerging between Washington and New Delhi. During his stay in Delhi, Powell quoted Bush as saying that he wanted to take the relationship with India to a newer plane. The U.S. wants India to stop being myopic and to look beyond Pakistan. After his meeting with Powell, Vajpayee seemed to be much more accommodative about U.S. perceptions in the region.

India, which has been a strong political and military-backer of the opposition Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, has compelling reasons to be worried about the composition of the next government in Kabul that would replace the Taliban. Washington has obviously given an assurance to Islamabad that its "legitimate" interests in Afghanistan will be taken care of. This, in practical terms, could mean that the so-called "moderate" section of the Taliban would be resurrected and could well have a leadership role in a new government that in theory would be broadly representative of all the major ethnic groups.

Jaswant Singh has gone on record as stating that "the concept of a moderate Taliban is an oxymoron". New Delhi's views on the subject has few takers at this juncture. One of the titular leaders of the Northern Alliance, the former President of Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani, recently said that he would be willing to cohabit with the "moderate" section of the Taliban. U.S. officials say that they are not in a position to "micromanage" the political transition in Afghanistan although they have promised a substantial financial contribution to rebuild the country.

Powell was effusive in his praise for Jaswant Singh. He thanked the Indian government for its prompt endorsement of the Bush administration's National Missile Defence (NMD) initiative, earlier in the year. The NMD is currently on the backburner, overshadowed as it is by unfolding events. India is among the handful of nations that have supported the NMD, in the hope of gaining brownie points with the Bush administration.

China and Russia continue to be among the opponents of the NMD programme, which they say would lead to a new and dangerous arms race. Powell has sought to allay such fears. If the Bush administration goes ahead with its missile defence plan, China will have no other alternative but to accelerate its missile development programme. If this happens, countries like India are not expected to stand idle.

The bruised egos of India's present set of policy-makers were assuaged to some extent by the invitation extended by Bush to Vajpayee to visit Washington on November 9. The news of the invitation was announced by Powell. The Foreign Ministry was eager to see that Vajpayee goes to Washington during his trip to the U.S. to address the U.N. General Assembly. As of now, a similar privilege has not been extended to Musharraf who is also expected to be in New York to address the General Assembly.

Advani initialled the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT), interpreted as an important step in cooperation in the field of counter-terrorism. According to a statement issued by the Home Ministry, the MLAT will enhance the ability of both the countries to "pursue common law enforcement objectives" by putting in place a mechanism that will simplify and expedite the process to obtain legal assistance, especially in criminal matters. The agreement was an improvement on the Indo-U.S. Extradition Treaty signed in 1999 and had brought "political offences" under its purview, it said. India is among the handful of nations in this part of the world that allows the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to function from its territory.