Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan... the US has landed itself in quite a mess in the Middle East, and if it is to come out reasonably unscathed, it must get Osama bin Laden. For this, says G. PARTHASARATHY, the US President, Mr George Bush, needs his Pakistani counterpart, Gen Pervez Musharraf. The months leading up to elections in Pakistan will be crucial.

G. Parthasarathy

As the US President, Mr George Bush, approaches the middle of his second, and final, term in office, the "neo-conservatives" who dominated the Defence and foreign policy establishment and advocated the use of overwhelming military power, particularly in the "Greater Middle East" are in disarray. The limitations of American military power have been exposed in North-East Asia by North Korea, which has manufactured nuclear weapons, disregarding American pressures. But it is in Iraq that the limitations of the American military power have been exposed most.

The Americans have found that it is relatively easy to conquer Iraq, but virtually impossible to contain a full-blown insurgency in which over 2,000 Americans have been killed. The invasion has not only destabilised Iraq but also, according to a Pentagon report, resulted in "conditions that led to a civil war in Iraq". Moves to introduce parliamentary democracy in Iraq have led to a situation that could result in the partition of the country on sectarian Shia-Sunni and ethnic Arab-Kurd lines.

Despite bringing in 7,000 additional troops recently, the Americans are finding that in the last two months there have been 3,400 casualties in Baghdad alone, 90 per cent of them caused by executions carried out by Shia and Sunni death squads.

With the Americans stuck in a quagmire in Iraq, Iran knows that the US is in no position to resort to military force, either to end Iranian military assistance to the Hezbollah or to deal with Iranian defiance on demands made by the UN Security Council that it should suspend its nuclear enrichment programme by August 31.

Sanctions against Iran

While the US would like to move quickly towards imposing sanctions on Teheran, neither Russia nor China is going to be rushed into agreeing to sanctions. The Russian Defence Minister, Mr Sergei Ivanov, has announced that Moscow would not be ready to back the US/UK proposals for imposing sanctions against Iran, as the issue was not so "urgent" to consider sanctions at this stage. China has voiced similar views. EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Finland on September 1 asked for further discussions with Iran, rather than sanctions.

Significantly, the UN Secretary-General, Mr Kofi Annan, joined the anti-sanctions chorus, stating: "I do not believe that sanctions are the solution to everything. There are times when a little patience is more effective".

It does, therefore, appear that any negotiated settlement with Iran would involve prolonged negotiations and some accommodation of Iran's assertion about its "right" to enrich uranium. Any resolution of the Iran nuclear issue could involve limitations on the level of enrichment to ensure that the enriched uranium is used for power reactors and not for nuclear weapons.

Afghan story

The American realisation of the limitations of military power is also evident in Afghanistan. The Americans know that the Taliban leadership is comfortably lodged in Quetta in Baluchistan with the support of the Pakistani strongman, Gen Pervez Musharraf, and the ISI.

They also know that with a ceasefire and peace process underway between the Musharraf dispensation and the pro-Taliban leadership in the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the Taliban and its Al Qaeda, Chechen and Uzbek allies will now be able to operate against NATO and Afghan Government forces from bases in both Baluchistan and the NWFP.

The Americans have reduced their troop levels in Afghanistan and NATO members such as the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada have been forced to undertake larger troop deployments there. More importantly, though American and NATO forces operating in Afghanistan and diplomats of NATO countries in Kabul are furious about the sanctuary that Pakistan is providing to the Taliban, they are under strict orders not to be critical of Pakistan and to sound sweet and nice when talking about the Musharraf government.

Given these developments, there are inevitable suspicions about a "deal" between the Bush Administration, which recognises growing war weariness in the US, on the one hand, and Gen Musharraf desperately seeking legitimacy, on the other. Gen Musharraf knows that the Americans will have to live with him as their "best option," even if he keeps his Taliban allies ready to strike across the Durand Line at NATO and Afghan Government forces.

`Deal' with Musharraf

What could such a "deal" involve? Gen Musharraf would expect continuing American support for his re-election as President in 2007 and for his domestic policies. Evidence of such US "understanding" about Gen Musharraf's domestic policies was clear in the US reaction to the brutal killing of Nawab Akbar Bugti, when the State Department expressed support for a "strong and unified Pakistan", while alluding to what they said was Bugti's "taking up arms".

Gen Musharraf would also like to see an important role for his Taliban allies in the Afghan Government, with crucial responsibilities on security issues being allocated for people like Taliban Military Commander Mullah Jalaluddin Haqqani, in return for his assisting President Bush to "get" Osama bin Laden. There are also indications that Gen Musharraf has permitted the US and the UK to use bases and facilities in Baluchistan for covert actions and aerial surveillance in Iran. Regime change in Iran remains a key goal of American foreign policy.

"Axis of evil"

It is now evident that Mr Bush is not going to be able to claim that he has successfully dealt with either "Islamic Fascists" or the "Axis of Evil", comprising Libya, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, before he relinquishes office. But his fellow countrymen will judge him positively if he is able to deliver Osama bin Laden's head on a platter to them. This is not going to be possible unless he keeps his "best-bet," Gen Musharraf, in good humour.

For this purpose, the Bush Administration will turn a blind eye to the strategic implications of China's presence in the Gwadar Port on the western entrances to the Persian Gulf and to China's continuing nuclear and missile cooperation with Pakistan.

The US will also be very circumspect in dealing with Pakistani involvement in terrorism against India and elsewhere in the world. Pakistan's military ruler will be feted in the White House and be able to tell his countrymen that he has been able to provide his armed forces with American military hardware, including 96 upgraded F-16 strike aircraft. It, however, remains to be seen how events surrounding the forthcoming Presidential elections in Pakistan and an end to the saga of Osama bin Laden are sequenced and play out, in coming months.

`Look-East'

While India's `Look-East' Policies have brought it tangible benefits over the past 15 yeas, it now needs to develop a comprehensive `Look-West' Policy covering relations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, the Arab Gulf States and Central Asia, especially given the direction that America's `War on Terrorism' now appears to be taking.

India has crucial national security, energy and economic interests in these regions, with around 3.7 million Indians who remit back over $17 billion every year and contribute to its comfortable foreign exchange position, residing in the six Arab Gulf states. While one cannot doubt President Bush's desire to give a new direction and momentum to relations with India, we also cannot ignore the implications of American policies in our western neighbourhood on our national security.

(The author is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan.)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated September 12, 2006)
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