By William Pfaff
When large and powerful countries intervene in the affairs of smaller countries, they take for granted that they are, or should be—and certainly could be—in control. The reverse is often true. The smaller country is using the bigger one in its own game, which is far more important to it, and which it knows far more about.
In the war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, not much is being said about India. What has India to do with it? The Indians and Pakistanis are engaged in a competition to dominate or control the new Afghanistan after the U.S. is gone—a departure, they know, which sooner or later will arrive.
India and Pakistan have been at war three times since the partition of India created Pakistan and placed Kashmir—a Muslim state—under Indian rule. The two have been fighting over Kashmir, openly or secretly, ever since.
Pakistan, the smaller and less populous state, is vulnerable to India, which has nuclear weapons, which it tested in May 1998, prompting Pakistan to reveal its own nuclear arms with six tests of its own.
One of George W. Bush’s boasts in foreign policy is that he has made India, longtime critic of America, into a friend by giving it an unprecedented bilateral nuclear arrangement with the U.S., and by touting India as China’s democratic challenger in Asia.
Indian diplomacy is active in Central Asia, in the countries that are the homelands of Afghanistan’s Uzbek and Tajik ethnic minorities, rivals of the Pathans (or Pashtuns) who are the dominant community in Pakistan, and among whom the Taliban political-religious movement developed during the 1990s, with support from Pakistani intelligence.
Islamabad considers this an effort to strategically outflank and encircle Pakistan. A Taliban-dominated Afghanistan was, before 2001, thought by Pakistani leaders to provide them strategic depth.
India has also been one of the main sources of aid for the U.S.-supported Afghan government. President Hamid Karzai has been on a visit to New Delhi, where he received $450 million to add to the $750 million already promised by India. Indian companies and workers are active in highway-building and hydroelectric projects in Afghanistan.
On July 7, a car-bomb attack on the Indian Embassy in Kabul killed more than 50, including two Indian diplomats. The Afghan government has accused Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency of being responsible, which Pakistan denies.
It is well known that the powerful Pakistan military intelligence service was deeply involved with the United States in organizing and supporting the mujahedeen who drove the Russian army out of Afghanistan in 1989, and subsequently sponsored the Taliban movement, which took power.
The seriously deteriorating military situation in Afghanistan is understood in most of the American press and government as a straightforward matter. The United States ran the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2001 and installed a new government, which the U.N. approves. While we were in Iraq and not paying attention to Afghanistan, the Taliban came back to that country.
Now they have to be defeated again, and the Pakistanis are not cooperating the way they should, since they are America’s allies and Washington has made a big investment in Pakistan.
The United States wants action in locating and fighting Taliban sites inside Pakistan’s Tribal Territories, where government authority has always been sketchy and relations with the Pathan tribes politically tricky.
The new Pakistan government, formed after popular demonstrations against President Musharraf for his pro-American policies forced a national election earlier this year, has assured Washington that it will create a new paramilitary force to operate in the territories.
But the parties elected in February, who now govern Pakistan, want peace negotiations with the tribal forces in the frontier territories and the militants involved with the Taliban. They were elected for that purpose. They are putting pressure on the United States to halt or limit airstrikes in the frontier region, which they claim have a high rate of collateral damage and mistaken targeting of innocent gatherings.
The conventional American reaction is the one Barack Obama has announced, presumably having picked it up from hard-nosed military people: If the Pakistanis won’t crush the Taliban bases, we’ll come in and do it ourselves.
I am reminded of something a friend of mine, an old soldier from the Second World War’s European campaign, said at the start of the Vietnam War. “Just wait until those little guys in those black pajamas feel the shock of American heavy infantry!” They felt it, they absorbed it; and a decade later my friend conceded that the whole thing had been more complicated than he had thought.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2008 Tribune Media Services Inc.