Subcontinental Quicksand for the U.S.

Complicated ties, age-old enmities, and competing agendas will make it extremely tricky for America to achieve its goals there

By Manjeet Kripalani

Colin Powell, U.S. Secretary of State and chief diplomat in America's war on terror, says he considers his trip to the subcontinent the week of Oct. 15 a success. He did what everyone expected him to do -- issuing stern warnings to India and Pakistan to behave themselves over disputed Kashmir, at least while the U.S. conducts its Special Forces operations in Afghanistan. And he pledged U.S. support for both countries.

In Islamabad, Powell, a former general himself, agreed with General Musharraf that the "moderate Taliban" could have a place in the new Afghan government, and that Kashmir was "the" central issue between India and Pakistan. However, in New Delhi, anxious not to offend the Indians, he said Kashmir was only "a central issue" and didn't demur when Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh called his statement about a "moderate Taliban" an oxymoron.

Semantics aside, Powell's finger-wagging was of little use. Saber-rattling between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has been going on for 52 years, and America's troubles aren't of primary concern in the subcontinent. In fact, they matter so little that on Oct. 15, the very day Powell arrived in Pakistan, Indian troops shelled Pakistani positions over the de facto border that separates India-run Kashmir and Pakistan-run Kashmir. It was India's first military reaction after the Oct. 1 bombing of the Kashmir Legislature by Pakistan-based, Taliban-linked terrorists. The messages were clear: India will no longer beg the Americans for their support over Kashmir, and it won't hesitate to go on the offensive against Pakistan if necessary.


  Indeed, while Powell was partaking of a sumptuous banquet on the night of Oct. 16 hosted by Foreign Minister Singh, senior Indian officials were quietly conducting parallel diplomacy with Deputy Foreign Minister Ilya Klebnov of Russia, India's former cold-war ally, and Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, Moshen Aminzadeh. The topic of discussion: Afghanistan's fate.

A Russia-Iran-India alliance? Russia and India are old friends, as are Iran and India. India's interest in the West and Central Asian region isn't new either, with historic and cultural ties dating back centuries. At its peak during the 1800s, the sweep of the greater Indian empire extended from Kabul to Burma. Parts of Afghanistan were ruled by Indian kings and later the British, and even after Afghanistan became a separate nation, it continued to regard India as "the mother country," according to Monu Nalapat, professor of geopolitics at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in south India.

With the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the last decade, and the increase in terrorism in Kashmir from mercenaries trained in Pakistan and Afghanistan, India's relations with the latter had deteriorated. Still, India retained one of the best intelligence networks in Afghanistan. And when India received little support from the U.N. for its Comprehensive Convention against Terrorism, which it proposed in 1996, "we decided then to join shoulder-to-shoulder with anyone who would help us," says an Indian official.


  Since then, India has been quietly supporting the Afghani resistance. New Delhi is its center outside of Afghanistan, and the widow of Afghan President Fetana Najibullah, who was killed by the Taliban, lives officially under the protection of the Indian government. For the past four years, India has been providing medical aid and munitions to Northern Alliance troops, encouraging them to overthrow the Taliban.

While supporting the Northern Alliance, India has also kept up its relationship with Iran -- still regarded as a terrorist state by the U.S. This spring, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee took a business delegation to Tehran to discuss the possibility of moving Iranian natural gas to India.

Russia is the only member of the U.N. Security Council that favors giving India a seat in this elite group. The Russian republics, too, have kept up their ties with India, especially Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, Ahmed Shah Masud, the commander of the Alliance troops, was taken to an Indian-built and supported hospital after being fatally injured by suicide bombers in August.


  India and its allies have their own plans for Afghanistan. They have thrown all their support behind the Northern Alliance, encouraging them to capture more Taliban territory, and have even kept their own forces in readiness. What they want is the establishment of an anti-Taliban, anti-Pakistan government in Afghanistan.

Unlike Pakistan's demand to the U.S. that the Northern Alliance not be included in the new government, the Iran-India-Russia plan supports a Northern Alliance government that would include what Indian intelligence calls the "nationalist Pusthuns." These are the quiet dissenters among Afghanistan's majority tribe.

Pakistan certainly has reason to worry about the Nationalist Pushtun and Northern Alliance's participation in the new government. The Durand Line, drawn in 1894 by an overzealous British governor of Afghanistan, divided the Pushtun people of Afghanistan so that a buffer could be created to protect the British Empire's northwest boundaries, which at the time included a part of India that is now Pakistan. That partition stood until 1993.


  The Northern Alliance, which sees Pakistan as the creator of the Taliban, is clear about one thing at least: When the new government of Afghanistan comes to power, says a senior Afghani diplomat in New Delhi, it will work to enforce the renegotiation of the Durand Line, with the goal of reuniting the Pushtuns of Pakistan with their brothers in Afghanistan, in one territory -- in Afghanistan.

For Pakistan, already shaken by pro-Osama bin Laden street demonstrations, the prospect of the secession of its northwestern frontier province state is frightening. It's a scenario the U.S. -- already bewildered by the horror of bin Laden's attacks and Islamic hatred -- doesn't want to entertain either.

But the U.S. has chosen its partners, and, say the Indians, playing ball with Pakistan in search of "moderate" factions of the Taliban will almost surely complicate matters. Powell & Co. have entered a murky world of subcontinental warfare, treachery, and intrigue.

Kripliani is New Delhi bureau chief for BusinessWeek

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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