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America plays Afghan card

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By K.P. NAYAR in Washington
  • Published 13.02.09

Washington, Feb. 12: Pakistan acknowledged the authorship of the Mumbai terror plot within its territory after US President Barack Obama spoke to his counterpart in Islamabad, Asif Ali Zardari, on Wednesday.

Obama timed his very first contact with Zardari after being sworn in President three weeks ago to coincide with a visit to South Asia by Richard Holbrooke, his special envoy on Pakistan and Afghanistan, who shook things up in Islamabad the previous day and prepared the ground for a call from the White House, according to officials who spoke on background.

That prevented Zardari from dwelling on niceties and inanities that he is famous for and the Obama-Zardari talk was strictly business, sources here said.

Obama intervened after Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi ominously told a media conference on Tuesday that “there are some irreconcilable elements and nobody wants to deal with them, neither Pakistan, Afghanistan or the US”.

Qureshi’s unexplained reference to “irreconcilable elements” is said to be an effort by Holbrooke to hold Zardari to account on his statement to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New York last September that Pakistan would not object to Indian presence in Afghanistan if it is for stabilising that country.

India has so far made no public mention of Zardari’s remarks to Singh, but it is clear that New Delhi briefed Washington on the New York talks between the two leaders.

It is most likely that Zardari did not mean what he said, but was trying to better the atmosphere at his meeting with Singh: Benazir Bhutto’s widower is famous for such tactics.

What Zardari told Singh will be red rag to the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, but Holbrooke appears to have used it to get the Pakistani President where he wants him to be in order to secure concessions and easing tension with India.

Sources here said the attack on Mumbai figured only in passing in talks between Holbrooke and Pakistani leaders, but the US envoy made it plain that he was not averse to greater Indian activism in Afghanistan as Zardari proposed and also in association with Nato.

The message from Washington was clear. Pakistan must demonstrate that it is serious in dealing with terror threats against the entire region, including India, or else, India’s stakes in the Obama administration’s regional approach to ending terror in Afghanistan will be legitimate.

At his September meeting with Singh, Zardari is also said to have floated the grandiose idea of a regional conference on Afghanistan, which will bring India, Pakistan, Nato and the US together.

Understandably, India has been scrupulously silent about Zardari’s idea. It would raise a storm of domestic protest ahead of the elections in India from the BJP to the CPM on the ground that New Delhi is moving away from not working with any military bloc.

But Holbrooke danced around the proposal in Islamabad, more in the context of an intra-Afghan dialogue ahead of the August election that may replace President Hamid Karzai.

It would be a revised version of the Bonn conference on Afghanistan in 2001 where Indians played a role, as the US envoy saw it.

The underlying message of Pakistan’s belated action against the Mumbai plotters is that its civilian government, the army and the intelligence agencies are prepared to make concessions to India on cross-border terrorism in order to preserve Pakistan’s “strategic depth” in Afghanistan.

On the day he was appointed as special envoy, in his very first remarks, Holbrooke said: “I will say that in putting Afghanistan and Pakistan together under one envoy, we should underscore that we fully respect the fact that Pakistan has its own history, its own traditions, and it is far more than the turbulent, dangerous tribal areas on its western border. And we will respect that.”

This week in Pakistan, Holbrooke made it clear to Zardari and others that he is prepared to rewrite history unless Islamabad acted.

For now, it is a tactic that has yielded some result. But then, in its dealings with Washington, Islamabad has ultimately excelled in the feat of the tail wagging the dog.

There was intense diplomatic curiosity here yesterday that Obama called the Pakistani President even as his special envoy was on the ground in that country. Pakistan’s action today explains the unusual phone call from the White House.