Pak spoiler in Indias relations with US

NEW DELHI; India’s honeymoon with the United States appears over, as the Indian government views with increasing concern diverse statements emerging from the (Barack) Obama administration on a range of issues, from terrorism to Afghanistan to the possibility of a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan. At the centre of the problem is Washington’s perceived ‘tilt’ towards Islamabad on the eve of the first ever US-Pakistan strategic dialogue scheduled for today.

However reviled the previous George W Bush administration in the US may have been for large swathes of the international (and US national) community, from India’s point of view it was as close as possible to the perfect bilateral relationship, short of being an alliance partner. Bush’s personal commitment to India and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saw the fruition of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, which helped bring India back into the mainstream of international nuclear commerce. It also saw the expansion of the bilateral relationship to a strategic relationship with enhanced cooperation in defence and counter-terrorism and into a host of unheralded areas, from agriculture to education and trade.

The ceremonial aspects of the bilateral relationship look strong, with Singh so far the only state guest of the Obama administration. However, Obama’s Af-Pak policy, resulting from a certain war fatigue, has brought Pakistan, and particularly its army, to centre stage, leaving India worried that a withdrawal of western forces could return the situation in the region to the turn-of-the-century Emirate of Afghanistan era, run by “obscurantist elements” of the Taliban, propped up by a Pakistan seeking ‘strategic depth’ in that war-ravaged country. Having invested over one billion dollars and several lives in Afghanistan, India is not happy with the way the situation in Afghanistan is looking.

Suggestions by the Obama administration that India should resume a dialogue with Pakistan have also not gone down well, with former National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra saying he could not understand if Washington was being “naïve or devious”. According to Mishra India, as the country that suffered the horrific terrorist attacks of November 26, 2008, should not have been “pressurized” into talking to Pakistan, to whom the attack’s perpetrators have been definitively traced.

David Coleman Headley, an American of Pakistani origin and a key mastermind of the 26/11 attacks, recently pleaded guilty in a Chicago court to all charges of his involvement in those attacks. In exchange for that admission, he was offered a plea bargain that ensures that Headley will never be extradited to India for his crimes against India nor face the death sentence.

The US Justice Department’s decision has sparked outrage in India, which was not consulted about this deal. India has not been allowed any access to Headley, who has admitted to being a member of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba, and confirmed many of the charges India has repeatedly made against Pakistan, of sponsoring terrorists.

After Headley’s plea bargain was made official, India was assured of access to the man, with US Attorney General Eric Holder calling Home Minister P Chidambaram to inform him so. However, on Tuesday, the US Ambassador to India Timothy J Roemer appeared to renege on that commitment, stating that “no decision on direct access for India to David Headley has been made.”

When Holder called Chidambaram, he explained the various modes of access that India could have for Headley’s interrogation. The three options provided to India are, first, via letters rogatory, where the Indian government would request its US counterpart for judicial assistance, in the form of evidence or testimony collected during Headley’s interrogation, which can be used by the prosecution in the 26/11 trial in India.

Second, the Indian government can have indirect access to Headley through video-conferencing. Finally, India also has the option to send Indian investigators to the United States to interrogate Headley and, according to government officials, a team of officials was getting ready to visit Chicago to interrogate Headley.

Roemer’s remarks also come amid reports that Pakistan was seeking access to Headley.

At the US - Pak strategic dialogue, in which the Pakistan army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani is scheduled to articipate, along with his ISI chief General Shuja Pasha, high on the agenda along with a transfer of weapons to supposedly combat terrorists, is a possible ‘sop’ of a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan.

From past experience, India has cautioned that many of the weapons the Pakistan army is seeking cannot be deployed along its mountainous tribal western frontiers where terrorists are lodged. Instead, they will be amassed against Pakistan’s eastern borders with India, government sources said. The possibility of a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan, a country that is the world’s “Wal-Mart” and foremost proliferator of illegal nuclear supplies to Iran, North Korea and Libya, among others is “so outrageous that the consequences are not even thinkable,” a senior official said. “How will Obama justify such a move at his Nuclear Security summit (scheduled) in Washington next month?” the official said.