In the event, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Kabul was bound to draw supercilious American comments. The US Assistant Secretary of State Robert Blake has been quick off the mark, setting the directions for American media commentators and pundits. In essence, he said Friday at the CSIS in Washington that Dr.Singh undertook the visit in self-recognition of India’s “enhanced position as a regional leader”; and, two, that the Indian PM’s visit “underscored India’s strong efforts to support international efforts to rebuild a secure and stable Afghanistan”.
What did Blake hope to achieve? Surely, he knows PM’s visit was scheduled much before Abbottabad operations. Equally, he ought to have understood from the cables sent by the American embassy in Kabul that PM focused overwhelmingly on setting the new directions of India-Afghanistan ties and wasn’t holding briefs for any third country. What Blake endeavoured to do is to deliberately attempt to turn PM’s visit into a Pakistan-centric orientation.
Pakistan has perceptions of Indian intentions in Afghanistan and of India’s close coordination with the US regional policies. Blake has deftly tried to work on these perceptions. What else did he mean by India’s “enhanced” position as a regional leader? Who “enhanced” it? I would have imagined that India’s position as a regional leader is as ancient as the hills - dating back to Jawaharlal Nehru and the halcyon days of India’s leadership of the non-aligned movement, much before Uncle Sam discovered India.
The real issue here is whether India is flexing its muscles as a regional leader? I thought the salience of PM’s entire visit to Kabul was India’s humility and understanding to handle relations with a much smaller and weaker country in great deprivation and suffering with profound sympathy and yet on equal terms of partnership. PM was never once prescriptive; he sat down with Hamid Karzai as the elected leaders of two democracies who have shared concerns and anxieties about what lies in the womb of time for regional security and stability after 10 long years of this imposed war. PM didn’t pretend he had all the answers for Afghanistan’s problems. Most important, PM spread petals of friendship rather than belittle Karzai, call him names, or pamper alternate sources of power in Kabul - not even when he directly approached the Afghan parliamentarians who are in the Afghan opposition.
In my opinion, Blake should make a case study of PM’s visit and propose new norms for the US viceroys visiting Kabul. PM’s visit makes an excellent case study of how a genuine regional power can work with cooperative team spirit on equal terms.
Second, Americans habitually equate themselves as the “international community”. So, Blake has insinuated that PM travelled to Kabul holding US’ brief and supplementing the US efforts to “rebuild a secure and stable Afghanistan.” I can only see this as Blake’s sense of black humour (no intended offence to Barack Obama, please). Is US anywhere near “securing” Afghanistan when the whole world knows its tail is on fire in the Hindu Kush? The funny part is that the thrust of PM’s visit was to explore how Indian interests can be salvaged out of the royal bloody mess the US made of its Afghan invasion. India is not at all amused by the John-Wayne way the US has gone about in Afghanistan during the past decade or its current self-centred, non-transparent action plan toward the Afghan endgame.
Lastly, a noble streak of PM’s visit to Kabul is that both he and Karzai took care not to offend Pakistani sensitivities at a very delicate juncture in regional politics. PM went out of the way — somewhat ostentatiously, in fact — to distance India from the US’ Abbottabad operations and the American culture of “unilateralist” military action against sovereign countries.
The great American conspiracy has always been to turn the Afghan problem into an India-Pakistan turf war and to fish in the troubled waters. Of late, there is a much better awareness in Pakistan, too, about the American game plan. After the Raymond Davis episode, Pakistan has a much better grasp of the massive CIA infiltration of the various insurgent and militant groups working in their country. Truly, it has been extraordinary that Pakistan didn’t go into any undue excitement that the Indian PM had a hugely successful visit to Kabul, which included even an overnight halt that carried much political symbolism.
It is this nascent Pakistani willingness or openness of mind to reassess the Indian intentions in Afghanistan that Washington would like to disrupt. The US interest lies in pressuring Pakistan by playing on its phobia about India — India’s hubris, India’s hegemonistic intentions, India’s developing ties with US , India’s activities in Afghanistan and so on — so as to get Islamabad to become more amenable to the core US agenda in Afghanistan, which is that Islamabad should give up its dogged opposition to long-term US military presence in the Hindu Kush.
What happens next? Blake will now be all ears and eyes for Islamabad’s reaction. He has taunted the Pakistanis with PM’s visit to Kabul. If the LAT story (with Kabul dateline!) is to be believed, Washington expects the Pakistanis to go into some violent delayed reaction to the Indian PM’s shenanigans in Kabul. Oh, Lord, when is it that these supercilious westerners would finally show the mercy and grace to allow countries like ours - India and Pakistan - to sort out our problems by ourselves?
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