x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Obama courts Pakistan and raises eyebrows next door

In another set of games, the unending match between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its Indian counterpart, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) continues.

While the Delhi Commonwealth Games garnered a fair bit of attention, not least for the corruption and incompetence ingrained within the DNA of India, another set of games continues, largely out of the media spotlight. This is the unending match between Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and its Indian counterpart, the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW).

It is a rivalry that rises out of the pain of partition in 1947, a foundation stone of both countries that affects every foreign policy decision. For the United States, it is a crucial consideration in its delicate balance between the two. The very public accusations aired last week that the ISI had dozens of contacts with the terrorists responsible for the Mumbai attacks in 2008 brought this covert world out into the open.

The accusation rests on the testimony of David Headley, a former US federal informant, a former ISI asset, and a current prisoner held in the United States on suspicion of helping to plan the Mumbai atrocity and other terrorist attacks in India. When a team of Indian investigators interviewed him in the presence of FBI officials, what raised eyebrows was the explicit link to the ISI and his statement that at least two of his visits to India were directly funded by that agency. He gave details about his interactions with ISI officers, including at their Lahore operational headquarters.

Of course, the links between Pakistan's military intelligence and terror groups is no secret. Indeed, several militant leaders had a military career. The two top leaders of the Lashkar-i-Taiba (LiT), Abdul Rahman and Ilyas Kashmiri, were members of the Pakistan army's special forces.

What has disconcerted Indian officials about the Headley confessions is that the FBI was aware of his visits to India and of his links to the LiT, yet did not bother to alert New Delhi. The Indian security establishment believes that if the FBI warned them, Headley could have been put under surveillance and the Mumbai plot foiled. Two of Headley's three wives warned US authorities that he had ties to terrorists, but India wasn't tipped off until Headley started to reconnoitre locations in Europe as well.

All of this has led Indian security officials to believe that the US was unconcerned about the danger of an attack on India and became active only when European cities were targeted. This is seen as evidence that the policies of the Clinton administration, which focused on Europe and relegated India to a subsidiary role, were actually still operative.

The Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh's highest foreign policy priority has been to craft a close alliance with the US, although he has found the US president Barack Obama a far more slippery customer than Mr Bush. Mr Obama has taken a negative stance towards the robust cooperation envisaged by Mr Bush when he pushed through the nuclear deal with India two years ago. India had been hoping for joint projects in high-tech areas, principally in aerospace, but the Obama administration has treated India on a level below traditional US allies such as France, the UK, Japan and Germany.

Mr Obama has also repeatedly made comments opposing outsourcing to India, backed punitive measures against US companies that outsource, and levied fresh taxes on the operations of Indian companies in the US. And as Indian companies find their operations under fire, the Obama team is trying to sell New Delhi about $20 billion (Dh74 billion) in defence equipment and $15 billion in nuclear power plant technologies. Some of these mega-deals are expected to be announced during Mr Obama's visit to India next month.

Despite Mr Singh's tilt towards the US, his government has been dismayed by the continued reliance of the Pentagon on the Pakistan military, a policy that the Indian military and the RAW see as ensuring a Taliban return to power by 2012. New Delhi has raised its eyebrows at the scale of US assistance to Pakistan, with commitments in excess of $10 billion, most of which will go to the India-obsessed Pakistan military.

Senior officials point out that if India were to buy into the shopping list offered by the Obama administration, then in effect the Indian taxpayer would be funding the US's largesse to Pakistan.

All of this means that Headley's confessions have soured the atmosphere ahead of the Obama visit. While the US president will seek to seal big-budget deals with India and secure concessions to the US strategy in Afghanistan, New Delhi would like to ensure that another Mumbai attack does not take place. That means that it has to trust that the FBI and the CIA will alert their Indian counterparts about US and other citizens who are active in the terror cells of Pakistan.

Mr Singh is still hoping that the Pakistani military will realise that better relations between the two subcontinental rivals is a win-win resolution, but it is a view shared by few. And only a few in his government share his enthusiasm for the Obama administration and his hope that they will keep Indian concerns in mind when dealing with Pakistan.


MD Nalapat holds the Unesco peace chair at Manipal University and is a former editor of The Times of India