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Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2001


India and the U.S. get closer

NEW DELHI -- With the rapid pace of developments since the airborne terrorist strikes in the United States, one major event has received little attention: India's decision to offer its military bases, airfields and intelligence to American forces in the planned counterterrorist campaign, a radical shift in the country's strategic posture.

Having denied Soviet forces access to its military bases during the Cold War years, despite its friendship with Moscow, India's policy shift is a seismic event with far-reaching implications for its foreign and defense policies and the future of the U.S.-Indian relationship. By jettisoning its long-held nationalistic policy of keeping foreign forces away from its territory, India has overnight added a new depth and intimacy to its strategic engagement with the U.S.

After missile defense, counterterrorism has emerged as an important platform for strategic cooperation between U.S. President George W. Bush's administration and the Indian government led by aging Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In the same way that New Delhi promptly supported Bush's plans for recasting the framework of nuclear deterrence by building missile defenses, it quickly backed his call for a war on terrorism and offered concrete military support.

Both these actions were driven by Indian interests. In the face of China's buildup of nuclear and missile armories and its continuing covert missile aid to Pakistan, missile defenses make strategic sense for India. And as one of the countries that suffers most from terrorism emanating from the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, India has no hesitation in joining forces with the U.S. in its battle against terrorism.

The swiftness, quality and extent of the offer of Indian military help and participation, however, surprised even the White House, given India's typically slow and cautious decision-making process.

The Indian response has handed U.S. forces a degree of strategic flexibility in the impending military counteraction, undercut Pakistan's bargaining capacity, and ensured India is not on the margins of the emerging international counterterrorist coalition. As a full and vigorous member of that coalition, India could even participate in military strikes if Washington were to set up a multinational attack force.

The contrast between what prompted rivals Pakistan and India to agree to join a U.S.-led coalition against terrorism could not be more stark. Pakistan, as its military ruler President Gen. Pervez Musharraf has admitted, fell in line behind Washington on pain of punishment. New Delhi's action to extend full military support came voluntarily and enthusiastically, without the mercenary conditions Pakistan has sought to impose for aiding U.S. military operations against its own creation in Afghanistan, the Taliban militia.

By providing full and unambiguous support to the U.S. counteraction, India has undermined Pakistan's bargaining power. Such support should also help block the revival of the old U.S.-Pakistan military relationship, although India remains deeply concerned that a frontline sponsor of terrorism is now being employed as a frontline state in the war on terrorism.

Pakistan has to be used by U.S. forces because of its geographical location and its ground assets in Afghanistan. But India can offer to U.S. forces what Pakistan cannot: a safe, secure base for military strikes on the Taliban, although through the Pakistan air corridor. Because U.S. troops will have to watch their backs if stationed in Pakistan -- which is teeming with renegade elements within and outside its military -- America is likely to base its special forces elsewhere and fly them to Pakistani launching pads just before each series of raids.

The U.S. offensive will essentially seek to complete the unfinished Afghan War. No sooner than Soviet tanks started rolling out of Afghanistan, Americans too pulled out without installing their nominee in Kabul. The chaos and bloodshed that followed only helped Pakistan turn Afghanistan into its colony.

Now, a war on the Taliban is a necessary first step to weaken Pakistan's own terrorism-export capability. Despite India's uneasiness over Bush targeting the Taliban but not its master, Pakistan, the logic of what Islamabad is being made to do to combat terrorism will eventually come back to haunt it.

With Pakistan turning against the Taliban, fratricidal bloodletting among the jihad-spouting Islamists becomes a distinct possibility. Pakistan's biggest threat comes from its own jihad culture, raising the specter of the country turning into a larger, nuclear-armed Lebanon.

As the U.S. sorts out its military options to strike back decisively, India has to prepare for the possibility that the counterterrorist campaign could claim two nearby regimes as its casualties -- one intended, the Taliban, and the other unintended, the Musharraf government in Islamabad.

A fierce military offensive will not take long to dislodge the ragtag Taliban from power in Kabul after cutting off its Pakistani lifeline and destroying its command-and-control centers, with the militia thrown in disarray and its fighters melting away into the mountainous wastes. The initial objective will be to simply dislodge, not destroy, the Taliban. With discussion already on in Washington as to who should replace the Taliban in Kabul, India has to ensure that Pakistan does not have its way in defining the next regime's composition as a quid pro quo.

The irony is that even as Musharraf insists on the installation of another Pakistani surrogate regime in Kabul, his own political survival is at stake. The worried look on Musharraf's face as he told his nation on television last Wednesday that this was Pakistan's biggest crisis since 1971, betrayed the threat he senses to his own position and life.

It is clear America's protracted war on terrorism will trigger profound changes in the regional strategic landscape and even some instability. The war will also accelerate the process of building a U.S.-Indian strategic partnership. A long-term military relationship between India and the U.S. appears likely to be formed.

Brahma Chellaney, a professor of security studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, is a regular contributor to The Japan Times.

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