Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Obama Visit: Realism Without Hype

Obama Visit: Realism Without Hype
Saeed Naqvi


All those who were, until the other day shrugging their shoulders and despairing at no “deliverable” packages during the Obama visit, suddenly have a relaxed pensiveness in their eyes which comes from the dawning of realism. In essence, the visit will be directional not “destinational”.

Little wonder someone involved in the preparations was heard with rapt attention when he narrated Obama’s description of his exchange with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the Oval office: it was an intellectual exploration of the myriad problems that afflict the globe. The two, between them, are more intellectually equipped, than any other pair of summiteers. Manmohan Singh’s meetings in Malaysia and Hanoi and Obama’s coming itinerary in that region, all point to a pooling of ideas.

Jaswant Singh, who was Foreign Minister during the Bill Clinton visit, recalls his conversation with Strobe Talbott: Let the “sherpas” negotiate the trading lists of “must do” and “can do” items. “It is demeaning to treat an arriving President as a stars-and-stripe Santa Clause.” Nor should the President of the United States, in pinched economic circumstances, turn up as a trader.

Presidential visits can sometimes be misleading pointers to subsequent history. Circumstances change. Remember when the born-again, President Jimmy Carter met the twice born Prime Minister, Morarji Desai during his visit to India in January 1978, it seemed to herald a navigational correction in New Delhi’s foreign policy. The excitable Haryana leader, Devi Lal, even christened a village, Carterpuri. Such was the excitement.

Who could have imagined that within three months, in April 1978, Noor Mohammad Taraki, a Communist to boot, would become Prime Minister in neighbouring Afghanistan, paving the way for the Soviet invasion, making Pakistan the frontline state.

The first post cold war visit to India by a US President was Bill Clinton’s in March 2000. The American perception of the altered regional realities was reflected in the itinerary: Clinton spent five days in India and five hours in Islamabad, mostly chastising Gen. Pervez Musharraf for turning a blind eye to cross border terrorism.

Post 9/11, Musharraf made a U-turn and, to New Delhi’s chagrin, the US embraced him as its principal ally in the global war on terror forgetting how cross border terrorism had plagued India since 1989. With help from countries in the region, the US ousted the Taleban from Kabul. It had entered the conflict in a mood of “full spectrum dominance”. But, since the global economic downturn, a chastened US finds itself in urgent quest for policy options to scale down in Afghanistan. How does India play a calming role in this situation without getting involved in the mess?

Heaven knows how much work has been done on this count and incorporated into Obama’s briefs.

Gen. Stanley Mccrystal, from whom Gen. David Petraeus has taken over as US Force Commander in the region, was quite explicit: India must vamoose from Afghanistan to ease Pak anxieties about an Indian pincer from the east and the west.

Gen. Petraeus didn’t go quite that far but even he could not resist talking of India’s “cold start” thesis (a term for rapid deployment) possibly to keep the Pak military in good humour. No such thesis exits.

One can understand Pakistan’s indispensability on account of the supply route from Karachi through Balochistan to Afghanistan and US anxieties about religious extremism in the world’s most powerful and unstable Muslim state “with a 100 nuclear warheads”.

These are realities but how will they come up in the discussion? That Pakistan, strapped to a nuclear bomb, is about to go over the precipice? Or that sober appraisals are required bilaterally, then trilaterally and so on.

American desire to scale down in Afghanistan is clear but its ability to do so by 2011 is less so. Who will protect Hamid Karzai until and beyond 2014? Mullah Omar, Gulbudin Hekmatyar and Serajuddin Haqqani? Karzai begins to froth in the mouth with anger at the very mention of someone like Haqqani? So much for the acceptability of Pakistani assets in Afghanistan.

India’s popular infrastructure and development projects, supported by the widespread magic of Bollywood, has given it a wholesome profile in Kabul which must not register in Islamabad as facts adversarial to its interests.

Look! In varying degrees, all of us in the region are in a mess and should get into a scrum which must include Pakistan, Obama’s destination early next year. On this we shall look for hints from the summit.

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