Historically, the area astride the Pakistan-Afghan frontier has been reckoned as the gateway to the subcontinent. Though today it is in Pakistan, it would be appropriate to view events there as having a bearing on India's security. The Global War on Terror (GWOT) that has been raging in its environs since Operation Enduring Freedom was launched by the United States-led 'coalition of the willing' within a month of 9-11, is all set to come up to India's doorstep this summer.
US Vice President Dick Cheney paid a surprise visit to President Musharraf in late February. There has been speculation that the visit was to convey a blunt message to Pakistan that it has to do more to stem the revival of the Taliban in its tribal region along the border with Afghanistan. The pressure has only increased since with information warfare spin on headlines forecasting the end of the Musharraf era.
Since Pakistan struck a deal with the tribal elders in the North Waziristan tribal agency to pull out its troops in September last year, there has been an increased incidence of violence not only in Pakistan but also against the NATO in Afghanistan. This has given rise to apprehension of a regrouping of the Taliban and the Al Qaeda for operations over the coming summer. To pre-empt the possibility, there is the likelihood of the US taking the GWOT into Pakistani territory.
Thus far it was the Pakistani army that had been carrying out these operations. With the army suffering casualties about equivalent to its losses in the Kargil conflict there has been a rethink on strategy. Political considerations related to the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Pakistan have also led up to a winding down of operations. This has emboldened the remnants of the Taliban, who, having recruited Pakhtoon tribesmen alienated by military action by the US, are now more venturesome across the Durand line.
To counter them, the US is egging Pakistan to do more militarily, even as muted reports persist of US direct action in 'hot pursuit' operations and by air. Using the excuse of US pressure forcing its hand, Pakistan may resume operations. The threat of civil war would deter Pakistan, therefore it is more likely that the US may independently launch operations with or without Pakistani military participation. Tacit agreement of Pakistan would be required for operations in sovereign Pakistani territory. This could be forthcoming with the logic that the agreement the tribal elders had not controlled the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, thereby making the military option of the superpower inescapable.
The appearance of foreign powers along the subcontinent's periphery has through history prompted changes within. Such junctures include Alexander's incursion in the same area in ancient times, European medieval period expeditions along the seaboard, the Japanese threat during World War II at the opposite end and lately the dispatch of the American Seventh fleet during the 1971 war to the Bay of Bengal. Therefore, in the same vein as India's studied approach to the Christmas 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by its Cold War ally, the Soviet Union, India would do well to critically reflect on the actions of its current strategic partner, the US.
Since the US, despite its power to 'shock and awe', has not proven effective in managing the aftermath of its military adventures, be it earlier in Vietnam or in present day Iraq, it would be all the more reason for India to approach the coming war through a wider historical and geopolitical perspective than a reflexive anti-Pakistani stance or a fashionable pro-American one.
The problems of the GWOT being tackled by President Bush through a surge in troop levels is indicative of the unpredictability of the results of military action. Such action transforms the situation by creating problems of different magnitude and complexity than the one it started off to address. Therefore while the summer offensive may succeed in wiping out the Taliban and Al Qaeda survivors including bin Laden and his deputy Zawahari, the impact on volatile Pakistan and in turn on long term South Asian stability can only be a deterrent for such action.
It would require a power with India's stature to point this out to the hyper-power. To aim only to profit from Pakistan's discomfiture would be to limit India's national interest to only being Pakistan centric. If India is to out grow these traditional limits, it would require to stake out its commitment up to the SAARC's latest addition, Afghanistan. At the moment the limited motive of its reaching out has been to counter-balance Pakistan.
To favourably countenance the whittling of Pakistan through US military action would be to depart from India's unstated Monroe doctrine that disfavours extra regional presence in South Asia. Owing to the unacknowledged dictates of this doctrine, India has always been wary of Pakistan's strategy of external balancing ever since Ayub Khan's flirtation with the US in joining pacts as CENTO and SEATO to offset India. Its peacekeeping foray into Sri Lanka had also had as a motive to keep the US off Trincomalee. Its recent engagement with the undemocratic regime in Myanmar has been to keep the Chinese in check. Thus the impending war though on the margins should seize Indian attention now, for later it would likely be too late to forestall it or contain its far reaching consequences.
In this, India has pre-prepared grounds for engaging Pakistan in the momentum the ongoing peace process has acquired in face of terrorist action to derail it, such as against the terrorist attacks on the Mumbai local trains and the Samjhauta Express. Were India to bail out Pakistan in demanding strategic restraint on part of the US, it would be the first time that the subcontinental strategic space were reckoned as one by both states. On this count, the war cloud on the horizon does have a silver lining.