By M K Bhadrakumar
In the world of diplomacy and politics, a “leak” invariably means something and its timing is never accidental. The leak is a form of diplomatic ingenuity. Two leaks in successive weeks, appearing in New York and London in the run-up to the visit by United States President Barack Obama to India in early November, raise tricky questions. They threaten to become the leitmotif of Obama’s visit.
The thrust of the “original leak” on October 15 in ProPublica, aManhattan-based website that specializes in “investigative journalism”, can be summed up as follows:
The ProPublica leak was followed four days later by an item in Britain’s the Guardian newspaper on October 19, based on a classified report on Indian officials’ interrogation of Headley in June in Chicago. It makes out that:
Look at the deep irony of it. This was to have been a historic visit to Gandhi’s land by Obama, who professes admiration for the apostle of non-violence – and the confessions of a terrorist threaten to upstage it.
The two leaks are joined at the hip. The narrative is that: a) The US is hypocritical while professing to be India’s strategic partner; b) The ISI was involved in the Mumbai terrorist strike but there is nothing anybody can do about it now.
By a bizarre coincidence, the ”leaks” appeared even as the influential think-tank the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which is wired into the Washington establishment, released a “non-partisan” report on Monday co-authored by Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state in the previous administration, and Nicholas Burns, formerly undersecretary of state in the previous and the current administrations, titled “Natural Allies”, which presents an exciting “blueprint” to “rejuvenate” the US-India strategic partnership and put it on a “more solid foundation”.
Consider the following: Washington’s painstaking choreography on Obama’s visit reaches its final lap and a hidden hand appears from nowhere to disrupt it. At the very least, to quote a senior Indian editor: “A miasma of suspicion hangs over the role of US agencies in failing to prevent the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks,” which in turn has “deepened the doubts and raised questions” about the nature of US-Indian counterterrorism cooperation.
It is anybody’s guess whether a hidden hand is indeed at work to derail Obama’s India visit. At any rate, a three-way cat-and-mouse game has begun involving the US, India and Pakistan.
US officials are in desperate damage-control mode. The point is, now is a critical time in the US-India partnership. Expectations are high that Obama’s visit will lift the strategic ties out of the trough of inertia of the past couple of years.
There is talk of easing of restrictions by the US on “dual-use” technology flow to India, of new vistas of cooperation in space and energy, a multi-billion dollar arms deal for C-17 military transport aircraft and new business opportunities in the burgeoning Indian market that hold the potential to generate tens of thousands of jobs in the US. The Delhi grapevine is that India has all but decided to award to the US a massive contract for 126 multi-purpose fighter aircraft – worth anywhere up to $16 billion.
Logic prevails over emotion
Meanwhile, the Indian political establishment has also so far avoided joining in on making an issue over the leaks. New Delhi is genuinely hoping that Obama will publicly and explicitly commit the US to working with India in support of its permanent membership in an enlarged UN Security Council. Thus, in every way, the Headley story introduces a jarring element, as it only goes to highlight that the US and India make strange bedfellows.
New Delhi will factor in that the Headley disclosures can ratchet up India-Pakistan tensions and that the Pakistani military may seize tensions with India as another alibi for not undertaking operations in North Waziristan. New Delhi tunes into Obama’s AfPak symphony very attentively.
The tough line adopted lately by the US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, vis-a-vis Pakistan is making things hot for the military leadership in Rawalpindi. The US is in no mood to accede to the Pakistani military leadership’s demand to be the key facilitator of any Afghan settlement, and instead has begun explicitly backing Hamid Karzai’s “Afghan-led, Afghan-driven” peace plan.
Meanwhile, NATO cross-border operations on Pakistani territory infuriate the Pakistani military. In short, as the New York Times commented: “General Petraeus seems determined to show progress on achieving American goals in Afghanistan – both military and political – ahead of a December review of the war effort ordered by Obama.”
The Pakistani military establishment is furious with Petraeus. A highly placed Pakistani general has been quoted as threatening: “Petraeus has to lower his goalposts if he wishes to see some semblance of peace in Afghanistan.” The Pakistani military is hoping Obama will ultimately rein in Petraeus and sue for peace.
But, Washington is circling its wagons. In a hard-hitting opinion-piece on Tuesday titled “Petraeus rewrites the playbook in Afghanistan”, influential Washington Post columnist David Ignatius rubbished the Pakistani military’s orchestrated media campaign to discredit Petraeus. Ignatius wrote:
Gen David Petraeus appears to be making a strategic pivot in Afghanistan. He is shooting more, increasing special-operations raids and bombings on Taliban commanders. But he is also talking more – endorsing President Hamid Karzai’s reconciliation talks with Taliban officials and guaranteeing their safety to and from Kabul as a confidence-building measure.
With Petraeus in the political-military driver’s seat, he can steer a process to push the disparate Taliban groups toward a political settlement. The diplomatic side of this game depends on Petraeus’s ability to pound those who resist – with devastating firepower. That’s why he has been pushing Pakistan so hard to step up its operations against the Haqqani network, sheltered in the tribal areas of the northwest, and against the Quetta Shura Taliban fighters, who operate from Baluchistan in Pakistan’s southwest.
No doubt, the US is also seeking a regional consensus, as was evident at the special representatives’ conference held in Romethis week in which Iran participated for the first time. This political-military approach aims at progressively reducing the US dependence on Pakistan.
Quite clearly, the Headley controversy pops up at a critical point in the Afghan war. Delhi’s comfort level with Obama’s AfPak policy is rising and the Pakistani military stands to gain immensely if Headley takes the center stage in the region’s security discourse.
The Indians would be downright stupid to get agitated over the leaks (which reveal nothing startlingly new) instead of optimizing the outcome of Obama’s visit. As the CNAS report underscores, US interests in a closer security relationship with India include:
But then, in politics, perceptions matter. Indian public perceptions of the US are going to be of its double standards and its unreliability as a partner. The leaks also make the Indian intelligence agencies look foolish and inept, and spooks are an egotistical lot. The Indian leadership will find it next to impossible to carry them along on a path of “kiss-and-make-up” with Pakistan in a near-term.
On the other hand, New Delhi can derive satisfaction that Obama’s presidential psyche is coming face-to-face with the monstrous security paradigm that Indians are fated to live with in day-to-day life. The “leaks” may be succeeding where Indian demarches haven’t. A paradox about good leaks is that like Saddam Hussein’s Scud missiles, those who launch them can never be sure of their trajectory.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.