COMMENT: Of honey and mousetraps —Shahzad Chaudhry - Monday, November 15, 2010

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Pervasive instability in Afghanistan will continue to transmit its adverse ripple effects in Pakistan. There is simply no way in which Pakistan could shield itself from this sentiment, however important it may be to do so to secure Pakistan’s integrity and stability

‘Money makes the mare go’ and ‘honey will entrap the bee’ are two assertions that have over time held true to their meaning. There are few nations in the world today that still make money in an economically recessed world. Among those, China and India reign significant. India adds almost $ 75-100 billion per year in liquid cash to its reserves, and that is a lot of liquidity. That is also sufficient honey to trap Obama’s bees.

When George Bush II offered India the civil-nuclear deal it was not out of love that rediscovered itself. India planned to spend about $ 150 billion in the next 15 years to produce up to 63,000 megawatts of nuclear energy. If it violated the essential provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and gave India a backdoor entry into the de jure nuclear club, so be it. A cash-strapped US economy will make money if there is money to be made. If the civil-nuclear liabilities bill in the Indian parliament seems a stumbling block to any progress, there will be other inducements to sweeten the completion of the transaction. Obama in his recent Indian sojourn has added a few, and if these fall short more may come. Obama will export his way out of the US’s economic pain. He has arms, technology and influence to sell.

The US’s endorsement of India in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) are the most significant. These will enable import of technologies by India such as the armed drones technology from sources within the MTCR that are heavily sanctioned for anyone outside the group. The NSG of course is the freeway to nuclear materials, both uranium and reactor grade plutonium, which are needed to keep the reactors churning while plutonium separated by the eight Indian reactors outside the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards could easily be reprocessed to weapons grade. That is Pakistan’s rub; while Pakistan is being constantly pushed to permit a freeze on prospective production of fissile materials without recourse to an equivalence formula of the existing stockpiles — the basis of Pakistan’s reservations on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT). Will Pakistan’s precarious economic and security situation, if let to further compound, make submission a fait accompli? It remains to be seen. The key there is, ‘if let to compound’. Shall we begin an earnest effort to avoid being pushed into a ‘compounding’ trap? A mousetrap is far worse than a honey-trap, and without the ingratiating comfort of the latter.

Just to be sure, the US endorsement of India’s desire to a backdoor entry into both the NSG and the UN Security Council (UNSC) does not make both a done deal. The NSG will need a consensus among its some 46 members, including China, to admit India, while the UN General Assembly will need to agree to a UNSC expansion mechanism and design with a two-thirds majority, and a consensus amongst the P-5, before India or any other aspirant can rise to the high table. The US endorsement is significant; whether that will woo the Russians and the Chinese too remains a hanging question.

The nuclear dimension of how the world proceeds is a big-league game. Pakistan’s dilemma remains the threat of either being isolated, a la North Korea, or squeezed out. What will help will be a drastic improvement in Pakistan’s internal health, especially the economy, which will enable Pakistan a greater and more useful relevance to the world and within the region. That will in turn strengthen Pakistan’s negotiating leverage in the big-league issues.

Of greater consequence in the short-term should be what went on behind closed doors in Delhi on Afghanistan. Publicly, Obama appreciated India’s development support to Afghanistan, but also acquiesced to the Indian stance of a regional solution to the Afghan problem, a euphemism for not a solely Pakistan solution — a possibility that had gained prevalence in the last few months. It really depends how desperate the US is to woo India — because even $ 10 billion in a $ 14 trillion economy is not even a pittance, as indeed is neither 50,000 jobs in a 10 percent unemployment rate, but a vanquished president in key elections of a country that is trillions into debt would be desperate to show any success, even worth $ 10 billion. So, was Afghanistan the price he paid? Let us examine that further.

The recent elections in Afghanistan have caused further distortions in the demographic make-up of the political system. The Pashtuns have again been short-ended in an election farce that is still not fully resolved. Those elected to the lower House mostly belong to the minority groups in an election, which was neither free nor fair. As such the Pashtuns, who are the plurality in Afghanistan, stand disenfranchised or under-represented. In such a scenario a regional solution with Iran, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and India with a bigger say would mean resurrection of the Persian speaking and Iran-India leaning Northern Alliance in effect, reverting the country back to the pre-Taliban days’ strife. Pervasive instability in Afghanistan will continue to transmit its adverse ripple effects in Pakistan. There is simply no way in which Pakistan could shield itself from this sentiment, however important it may be to do so to secure Pakistan’s integrity and stability. Our own significant Pashtun population is acutely sensitised to the ongoing war in the Pashtun areas. It is likely to unleash another wave of Pashtun nationalism on both sides of the border. The US too might find itself unable to leave the region with such instability pervading both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The environment, mostly politico-economic, must improve in the immediate term within Afghanistan, denying the Taliban the ability to radicalise the Pashtuns on the basis of nationalism any furtherm Even more importantly, before giving undertakings to India and others in the region as short-term quid pro quos, it would be advisable for the US to continue to seek political adjustment with the warring factions to mainstream them and ensure a more sustainable political structure in Afghanistan. Pakistan, for better or worse, remains a useful conduit for some groups that have found refuge in Pakistan since 9/11. Obama may have short-circuited these implications through closed doors undertakings in Delhi, and may find its manifestation odious even to the US’s own short and medium term interests.

Let us give the devil his due. India has done well by Obama’s recent visit. Not only was the visit extremely well conceived and orchestrated, the Indians got most of what they wished to achieve. For his part, Obama too achieved a foreign policy success in gaining US businesses a significant foothold in the emerging Indian market and even more importantly, jobs for his people back home, almost 70,000. In 1994, Clinton too was trounced in the mid-term elections having been in power only two years after his inauguration. Clinton ventured into foreign policy and rediscovered his charm, bringing him success. The economy recovered in time for him to be re-elected. Will Obama repeat the script?

On the way, though, will Obama avoid the various honey and mousetraps?

The writer is a defence and political analyst

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