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Geopolitical Diary: The Accelerating Crisis on the Subcontinent

6 MINS READDec 3, 2008 | 02:56 GMT
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was set to arrive in New Delhi on Wednesday, and then reportedly will make her way to Islamabad, in an attempt to calm tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbors following the attacks in Mumbai. It appears that Rice will be carrying a message of restraint for the Indians. Ahead of her trip, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino made a point of saying that "the United States doesn't believe Pakistan's government was involved in the attacks, and the Bush administration trusts Pakistan to investigate the issue ... We have no reason not to [trust Pakistan] right now." In other words: Hold your horses, India — Washington is in no mood for a crisis to break out on the Indo-Pakistani border right now. Washington's desire for restraint is understandable. The United States is shifting its military focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. For counterterrorism efforts to succeed in that theater, the United States needs to ensure, at the very least, that the Pakistani state is intact. But with a weak and fractured government, a military and intelligence establishment that has lost control, a spreading jihadist insurgency and an economy on the brink of bankruptcy, Pakistan is not in good shape. A military confrontation on its eastern border easily could be the straw that breaks the camel's back in Islamabad, thereby frustrating U.S. military operations in the region and creating an even more fertile environment for jihadist activities in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and the wider world. While the Indians will hear out the Americans and discuss various avenues of cooperation, including U.S. assistance in training and equipping Indian security forces, New Delhi is highly unlikely to accede to Washington's request for calm and restraint. India just experienced its own 9/11. After an attack of such magnitude, the government has no choice but to respond, and that response inevitably will be felt in Pakistan. This is not only politically driven: Though the Indian government needs to demonstrate that it is taking action against this threat, it also has a core national security interest in ensuring that an attack like that in Mumbai cannot be repeated. The Indians are not about to subordinate their freedom to maneuver to the Americans. Doing so would violate a long-standing policy of non-alignment practiced in New Delhi. Given its geography — buffered by the Indian Ocean to the south, jungles to the east, the Himalayas to the north and desert to the west — India is both insulated and strategically placed between the oil-rich Islamic world and the Far East. This has enabled New Delhi to pursue a largely independent foreign policy and play a balancing role between great powers, such as Russia and the United States. New Delhi will resist getting locked into any strategic alignment. (This is precisely why getting the civilian nuclear deal with the United States passed in New Delhi was such a laborious and noisy affair, as politicians feared the deal would compromise India's independence in foreign relations.) The U.S. need for restraint and the Indian need for action, therefore, inevitably will clash. But that will not necessarily stop the Indians from taking steps against Pakistan. There have been several public indications already that New Delhi is making a concerted effort to build a case against the Pakistanis without appearing hasty or rash. Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee told NDTV on Tuesday that while he would not comment on military action, "every sovereign country has its right to protect its territorial integrity and take appropriate action as and when it feels necessary." Later in the day, Mumbai Police Commissioner Hasan Gafoor gave a press conference in which he said that a group of 10 militants involved in the Mumbai attacks came from Karachi, and that the one suspect captured alive admitted to being a Pakistani from Punjab. STRATFOR also is getting indications that the Indian Intelligence Bureau is disseminating more detailed information to Washington — making a special point of reaching out to President-elect Barack Obama's advisers — to emphasize the Pakistan link in these attacks. So far, Obama has remained relatively ambiguous on the matter. However, on Monday, when asked whether India has the right to "take out" high-value targets inside Pakistan with or without Islamabad's permission — similar to the precedent the United States has set by launching its own operations along the Pakistani-Afghan border — Obama said that as a sovereign state, India has the right to protect itself. In all likelihood, a contingency plan has already been decided and set into motion by the upper echelons of the Indian government. Such a plan would take several days at least to implement, giving the Indians some time to try and exhaust their diplomatic options. This might explain why the Indians are being careful with their statements — reiterating the Pakistan link but leaving open a window for diplomatic reconciliation if (and only if) Pakistan cracks down on those elements of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency that purportedly were involved in the attacks. The Pakistanis are likely sensing Indian military preparations and are putting out feelers to exculpate the Pakistani state. One such feeler made its way to the Asia Times Online: A writer believed to have close links to the ISI described how a rogue node of the ISI in Karachi approved the Mumbai operation, after the initial ISI plot was "hijacked" by Kashmiri Islamist militants who had linked up with al Qaeda. The Pakistanis know that India is prepared to raise these claims and are attempting to put distance between the state and the ISI rogues. The best that Islamabad can hope for is that the United States — acting on its own interests in the region — will be able to restrain India from taking military action against Pakistan. This sets up an interesting dynamic in which the intent of each player will not necessarily match up with the results of its actions. Washington's intent right now is to restrain India, but India will not allow itself to be held back by the United States. The Pakistanis' intent may be to crack down on rogue ISI elements and stave off a military confrontation with the Indians, but it is doubtful that Islamabad even has the capability to do so — and it cannot depend fully on the United States to constrain New Delhi. The Indians' intent is to coerce the Pakistanis into suppressing militants and regaining control over ISI rogues, but political and social pressures are building within India to respond aggressively. The diplomatic maneuvers will continue in coming days, but objective forces are slowly pushing New Delhi, Islamabad and Washington toward a crisis.

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