Al-Qaeda to the rescue for Bush's legacyThe Cassandra-like foretelling by American opinion makers almost uniformly makes out that Pakistan may not survive. True, it is hard to be optimistic. Setting right these disjointed times is way past the capacity of the present US administration.
The only silver lining seems to be that in an year's time another team will move into the White House and a clean break becomes possible. Even ardent specialists in the US security community admit as much. A commentator for Stratfor, a think-tank closely linked to the security establishment, says, "In this endgame, all that the Americans want is the status quo in Pakistan. It is all they can get. And given the way US luck is running, they might not even get that."
It isn't quite a matter of "luck". Plainly speaking, in the winter of 2001, the George W Bush administration bit off more than a superpower should chew in the Khyber Pass. Today, it has no Plan B. The best hope for the White House is that Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Kiani "must become Washington's new man in Pakistan" (to quote Stratfor). That is to say, let's pin the blame for Benazir Bhutto's assassination last week on al-Qaeda, get on with old business and sit out the coming 12 months.
But smart soldiers like Kiani can't be that dumb, can they? Three types of prophets of doom are setting the tone in Washington. First come the FOBs - "Friends of Benazir". The people in the media, think-tanks and government in the US over whom Bhutto cast her spell - by way of her irresistible personal charm or through the skills of her top-class public relations handlers - simply cannot think of a Pakistan without her.
Second, there are America's legions of South Asia experts from an earlier era who are peeved that the administration with its neo-conservative agenda ignored their advice in the crafting of Washington's post- 2001 Pakistan policy. They feel vindicated the policy turned out to be a mess. Third comes the tribe of terrorism specialists who proliferated in recent years and are greatly experienced in the politics of fear - including some among them who seem to believe their phantom enemy is of absolutely cosmic significance.
US shuffles Iran cards
But theirs needn't be the only story. The shadow that Bhutto's assassination is casting on regional security is of varied hues. That is how it is already being felt in Tehran. In one swift sweep, almost overnight, Pakistan replaces Iran on the Bush administration's radar screen. Israel may not like what is happening, but Vice President Dick Cheney and company won't have even a fighting chance of reviving the Iran bogey in the remaining term of the administration.
The Bush administration cannot overlook that the crisis brewing in Pakistan and Afghanistan may turn out to be manifold more serious than all of Tehran's nuclear program and its support of Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Iraqi Shi'ite militia in Iraq combined together, let alone the political challenge posed by Iran's rising regional influence.
For the first time since it expounded the "axis of evil" theory, exactly six years ago - grouping Iraq, Iran and North Korea - the Bush administration is compelled to view Iran with a sense of proportion. The hardline policies aimed at destabilizing the Iranian regime look downright irresponsible in the changed circumstances. A military option is out of the question. A regime change in Tehran? Ridiculous.
But the "Iran question" as such may not fade away from the Middle East, though rhetoric - US and Iranian - has appreciably diminished in recent weeks. Part of the problem is that a bitterly contested parliamentary election looms ahead in March in Iran. Nonetheless, Iran-US relations are poised for a change of course. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's offer to meet her Iranian counterpart Manuchehr Mottaki "any place and any time and anywhere" testifies to that. There is guarded optimism in Tehran about the upcoming fourth round of US-Iran meetings regarding cooperation over Iraq's stabilization.
Rice said a week ago, "We don't have permanent enemies ... what we have is a policy that is open to ending confrontation or conflict with any country that is willing to meet us on those terms." Mottaki promptly responded, "Ground can be prepared." He welcomed Washington's "more respectful and logical approach" toward Tehran, which, he insisted, became possible since "they [US officials] have gotten a better understanding of Iran's key role in the region and its determination to obtain its legal rights [for enriching uranium]."
Iranians are pragmatists and after Bhutto's assassination they will have assessed by now that the developments in Pakistan leave the Bush administration with no option but to earnestly probe for ways of normalizing relations with Tehran.
To be or not to be ...
Iran may once again prove to be useful, as in 2001, for the logistical needs of Washington's "war on terror" in Afghanistan. Arguably, Iran can be a substitute route if the supply lines for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Afghanistan via Pakistan become choked. NATO and the US cannot get a more realistic partner than Iran for stabilizing Afghanistan. Iran's cooperation will be useful in forestalling the Taliban's northwardly march to the Amu Darya region and in stabilizing western Afghanistan, where NATO forces are coming under threat.
The alternative would be for Washington to go crawling back to Moscow and ask for air and land corridors to Afghanistan. It appears NATO made some soundings at the Russia-NATO Council meeting at foreign minister level in Brussels on December 7. Following the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "We discussed the situation in Afghanistan. The vital security interests of Russia and the NATO nations coincide here. It is both the threat of drugs and the lingering terrorist threat. They have to be fought by combined efforts."
Lavrov added, "We [Russia and NATO] are also considering other cooperation possibilities, particularly in logistic support of the International Security Assistance Force and in helping to equip the Afghan National Army. I think there is a good field in this regard where we can move towards finding mutually acceptable forms of interaction."
Writing in the Russian journal Ekspert a week later, in a lengthy essay on Russian foreign policy, Lavrov seemed to hark back to the discussions in Brussels when he revealed intriguingly, "We're [Moscow] also witnessing some gleams of qualitative shifts in the analysis of the contemporary phase of world developments in the US and Europe, although so far mostly at the level of the expert community. At the same time, it is obvious that our partners are thinking that the thought process has begun. One of the conclusions being drawn at that is the realization of the fundamentally non-confrontational character of Russian foreign policy."
With Bhutto's assassination, Washington must now hasten its "thought process". There is a hard decision to take. Both Iran and Russia would be sensible partners in the "war on terror" in Afghanistan. But neither would respond to a selective engagement by Washington. The Bush administration will need William Shakespeare's Shylock to weigh the relative advantage in engaging Iran or Moscow. That's where Bush's forthcoming tour of Israel, the Palestinian territories and the Persian Gulf allies could be useful.
One thing is already clear. The Iran nuclear issue refuses to go away. It may have taken a turn for the better lately, but, as China's People's Daily noted, this is far from a denouement. The US "will have to ferment new plans and work out new strategies over the Iranian nuclear issue both during and after the Bush administration ... Iran might benefit from the disparity among the world powers: it could strive for a more favorable international environment and strategic standing. In conclusion, concerned parties on the Iran issue are presently considering their own interests in relation to actual conditions in preparation for a new round of strategic contests."
Question mark on US global strategy
But Moscow poses even more fundamental difficulties. In the runup to the Russia-NATO meeting in Brussels, in exhaustive media comments, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman in Moscow underscored in December that "both successes and complications" bedeviled Moscow's relations with the trans-Atlantic alliance. He said the work ahead is not going to be easy.
Among problem areas, he listed "international legal implications" of NATO's transformation as a global political organization outside the control of the United Nations; NATO military structures "drawing closer to our borders"; further NATO enlargement plans; differences over the CFE (Conventional Armed Forces in Europe) Treaty; and "deployment of a third US global missile defense system in Europe and its conjunction with MD [missile defense] research and development within the framework of NATO."
In other words, in the post-Bhutto scenario, Washington needs to rework the agenda of the forthcoming NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, in April. NATO's third round of enlargement plans was listed as the key topic of discussion in Bucharest. Now, Pakistan and Afghanistan will inevitably overshadow.
Will Washington press ahead with earlier plans to get the NATO summit to endorse the admission of Ukraine and Georgia? In the present crisis situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, can the Bush administration afford to annoy the Kremlin? A Russian spokesman has warned, "We [Moscow] are convinced that the process of NATO enlargement has no relationship to the modernization of the alliance itself or to the ensuring of security in Europe whatsoever. On the contrary, it is a serious factor of provocation, fraught with the appearance of new dividing lines and a lowering of the level of mutual trust."
The Kremlin has clearly stated the bottom line, it will not be happy even if the US and the EU do not insist on forcing Kosovo's independence, or proceed to deploy NATO in the breakaway republic outside the framework of the United Nations Security Council. Lavrov underlined, "The main thing is the striving to jointly work on a basis of mutual respect, including respect for the analysis of each other regarding the threats, which today are common to us." He stressed that at the Bucharest summit, if NATO went ahead with its enlargement policy in parallel with the alliance's transformation, "we [Moscow] are convinced that this would not contribute to bolstering our common security or fighting the common threats to us". The implicit warning is that cooperation in the "war on terror" could be conditional on Washington rolling back its containment policy toward Russia.
It is obvious that both Moscow and Tehran now estimate that the crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan has a direct bearing on US global strategies. If NATO fails in Afghanistan, a huge question mark would arise over the alliance's future. As a US Congressional Research report in October noted, NATO's mission in Afghanistan is "a test of the alliance's political will and military capabilities". But that isn't all. What the US think-tankers obfuscate is that the US's ability to retain its trans-Atlantic leadership role in the post-Cold War era is itself in the firing line.
Both Moscow and Tehran stand to gain in a multipolar world order in which their regional influence comes into greater play. If Washington fails in its post-Cold War strategy of bolstering NATO by whipping up enemy images (eg, al-Qaeda), the process towards multipolarity will substantially gain. Significantly, Tehran and Moscow refuse to characterize Bhutto's assassination as the work of al-Qaeda.
Beijing's reaction has been equally cautious. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman initially condemned Bhutto's assassination as an "act of terrorism". But Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei, who visited the Pakistan Embassy in Beijing to sign a condolence book the next day, didn't refer to terrorism at all, but expressed the hope that the people of Pakistan "could overcome the current difficulty as soon as possible and jointly safeguard social stability and development of the country".
Chinese commentators have noted that "the situation in Afghanistan proved far more sophisticated than predicted" and it had become difficult for NATO to "cover up the troops' embarrassing position in the country". A People's Daily commentary analyzed last year that the Afghanistan debacle, coupled with the deterioration of NATO's relations with Russia and the failure of Brussels' efforts to secure a footing in Central Asia, have hampered the alliance from fulfilling its target of making 2007 its year of "transformation".
The commentary assessed that consequently that "the US pull within NATO has declined, and the US's trans-Atlantic role is becoming uncertain. It was widely hoped that the shift of top leadership in Germany, France and Britain might inject new vitality to US-European Union relations. But it is still hard to say whether the new 'troika' can usher in a situation Washington optimistically predicted."
All three countries - Russia, China and Iran - openly share an interest in seeing that the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Collective Security Treaty Organization play a significant role in stabilizing the Afghan situation. None of them has remained content with the US's (or NATO's) monopoly over conflict resolution in a region of such vital importance to their security, though they are supportive of the "war on terror" in Afghanistan as such.
Clearly, with Bhutto's assassination and with Pakistan tottering on the abyss, what stares the Bush administration in the face is a potential unraveling of its global strategy built around the "war on terror" and "Islamofascism". The easy way out will be to goad General Kiani to become Washington's "new man in Pakistan" so that the hunt for al-Qaeda goes on.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).