On the chessboard of South Asian defense strategies

By K.N. Pandita

Is the South Asian region (or Khurasan according to Islamic exegesis) emerging as the battlefield of a decisive clash of ideologies? Khurasan, originally an Avestic word, stands for the ‘lands to the East’. In geographical terms it could be Eastern part of Iran, Afghanistan and Baluchistan including its oceanic outreach.

The outcome of recently concluded Nuclear Security Summit in Washington is elusive if not controversial.  

The summit did not zero in on the South Asian nuclear county whose security of nuclear arsenal remains a matter of concern. NSS knowingly underplayed the subject because insistence would have meant jeopardizing US-Pakistan silent talks on bilateral nuclear deal going on between them for quite some time.

Pakistan has willy-nilly conveyed to the US that it could compensate its conventional war power deficiency by exercising nuclear option against perceived Indian aggression. Islamabad wants to justify acquiring short range tactical nuclear weapon technology (from China).

Washington did not feel any compulsion of repudiating Pakistan’s tactical nuclear weapon narrative. It is complacent with an assurance, even if vague, from Pakistan that the weapon will not fall in the hands of anti-American elements. For the US, the claptrap of NSS comes to an end with that.

India is unhappy on Obama hyphenating India and Pakistan for reduction in their nuclear arsenals. The US even seems to have de-prioritized the main reason of its refusal to sign the same type of nuclear deal with Pakistan as it has with India. The argument was that the former head of Pakistan atomic programme, Dr. A. Q, Khan sold nuclear technology to Iran, Libya and North Korea after he acquired it either through theft or through China’s munificence.

Pakistan calls her tactical weapon programme as an answer to India’s “Cold Start” military doctrine under which Indian conventional forces could conduct coordinated operations into Pakistan in limited warfare. Some believe that India’s new military doctrine evolved as a result of ISI’s proxy war strategy unleashed against India under the rubric of “Kashmir freedom struggle.”

In recent weeks, following two separate reports by David Ignatius (The Washington Post‘) and David Sanger (New York Time)‘, rumors abound that the US is planning to offer Islamabad a “nuclear deal”, which would grant Pakistan access to civilian nuclear technology and global nuclear commerce in exchange for a freeze in the growth of Islamabad’s nuclear arsenal. So far Pakistan has turned down this proposal.

As preparations for the fourth and final NSS meet were underway, Washington announced sale of 8 F-16 nuclear powered fighters to Pakistan. In retrospect, we find that by 1984, CIA staff and its teams had become concerned that Pakistan was advancing its nu¬clear weapons program on the United States’ dime. However, some in the White House and Congress maintained that Washington should continue to set aside its non-proliferation goals in favor of countering the Soviet threat in Afghanistan.

Hindsight shows that Pakistan foreign office was actually involved in getting US’ Pressler Amendment of 1985 passed. For next five years, she managed to benefit from contradictory reports of intelligence agencies on her nuclear programme, and continued to receive US aid. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush declined to certify, and the sanctions that Carter had enacted in 1979 came back into force.

Pakistan lobbied long for the purchase for purchasing 36 F-16 aircrafts. A 2009 State Department cable would later reveal that the F-16 sales were meant, in part, to exorcise the “bitter legacy” of the Pressler Amendment.

The 36 updated F-16s, eventually sold to Pakistan, were only part of a broader provision of weaponry: in the years since 9/11. The United States has also supplied the country with 15 reconnaissance drones, 20 Cobra attack heli¬copters, six C-130 Hercules transport aircraft, a Perry-class missile frigate, and many other armaments.

F-16 fighters are not designed to deal with the militants and terrorists active in Waziristan and PK region of Pakistan — the narrative on which Islamabad based justification of the purchase. Washington had not reacted to India’s complaint of Pakistan using American arms and armament against her in her wars with India.

The Bush administration reimbursed Pakistan for the costs of assisting the U.S. military in Afghanistan, to secure Pakistani cooperation on the maintenance of transit corridors into Afghanistan and to encourage Pakistan’s army to confront militants in the country’s tribal areas. This policy continued, with some modifi¬cations, under the Obama administration. Despite the contents of 2009 US white paper, Obama administration, like its predecessors, failed to develop policies that limit American complicity. As a sovereign state Pakistan is required to eliminate terrorists but actually she looks up to the US to pay for doing so.

We have noted that the US has not required Pakistan to stop backing militant groups, such as the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani group and Lashkar-e- Taiba, even as Islamabad battles those for their hostility to the state. The United States pays for the operations because it considers the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons a core national interest. This gives rise to clear dichotomy in US’ Pakistan policy.

The strategic demands of today’s South Asia are distinct from those of the Cold War era, but the central dynamic of U.S.-Pakistani relations remains constant.

India-Pakistan regional strategy has moved onwards to cast its shadow on the Gulf and the Indian Ocean region. China’s visibility in Gwadar port bolstered by her announcement of a 46 billion US dollar infrastructure package for Pakistan has accentuated India’s regional activism. New Delhi has embarked on a two-pronged strategy to counter growing Chinese influence in “Khurasan”. It is re-orientation of Indo-Iranian transit and trade relations and deepening Indo-US defence ties.

India’s interest in Chahbahar Port in Iran grew further after Pakistan last year handed over the control of its Gwadar Port to Overseas Port Holding Company of China for 40 years. New Delhi perceives it as yet another addition to the “String of Pearls” – a series of strategic assets Beijing is acquiring around India.

India will be investing $20 billion in the development of Iran’s Chahbahar port and has requested it to allocate adequate land in the Chahbahar Special Economic Zone (SEZ.).

Analysts point out that India’s participation in upgrading the Chahbahar port has deep geopolitical resonance. The full development of the port would lower landlocked Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistani ports for assured access to the sea. Besides, the trilateral arrangement could balance joint forays by China and Pakistan into the Indian Ocean.

In his recent visit to New Delhi, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif offered India a deal that not only involves developing the second phase of the port but also for operating it. Bilateral cooperation reaches beyond Chahbahar.

Tehran has offered a proposal to New Delhi to help build over 500-km-rail link from the Chahbahar in Southeast Iran to connect with Zahedan, capital of Sistan-Baluchistan province. With that Chahbahar gets connected to International North South Transport Corridor and provides access to Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and beyond.

The grand strategic plan is to connect Chahbahar through Zahedan into Afghanistan and on the other side, have a shipping line to key Indian ports on the Western coast. New Delhi and Tehran are sorting out differences over India’s participation to build rail link between Zahedan and Afghan-Iran border connecting Delaram-Zaranj road.

Zarif conveyed to Modi that Iran considered India its strategic partner and could never forget the support India extended to Iran during its difficult times. He is also understood to have indicated Tehran’s willingness to favourably consider the proposal of ONGC Videsh Limited of India to return to the Farzad B gas field in Iran.

India-U.S. defence relationship is clearly deepening in more ways than could be imagined even two years ago.

Ashton Carter, the U.S. defence secretary, concluded yet another successful visit to India recently. India agreed in “principle” to sign a logistics agreement, marking a clear departure from the previous government’s policy of seeing the Logistics Support Agreement as a hug too close for comfort. The pact in its generic form allows the U.S. to use the partner country’s military facilities for repairs, refueling and supplies.

Naval cooperation is the key in Indo-American embrace; it is a message to China. The joint statement by Ashton Carter and Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar also announced a new Maritime Security Dialogue and discussions on anti-submarine warfare and submarine safety. These flow from the path-breaking 2015 Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region issued by Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India and Iran are also poised to revive their long-standing defence ties now after international sanctions against Teheran have been lifted. Apart from holding some joint naval exercises in the past, India had even helped the Iranian Navy to upgrade its Russian-origin Kilo-class submarines in the mid-1990s

The Times of India of April 24 reported a flotilla of Indian warships will be moving to the Persian Gulf to add military heft to its ongoing stepped-up diplomatic outreach to countries of the region, while striking a fine balance between Sunni-led Arab states like Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait on one hand and the Shiite Iran on the other. Another Indian warship will be at the Iranian Bandar Abbas port city on southern coast of Iran.

Two more events will be supplementing India’s outreach to the Persian Gulf. While defence minister Manohar Parrikar is slated to visit Oman in May, IAF’s Sukhoi-30MKI fighter jets and IL-78 mid-air refuelling aircraft will also land in UAE briefly for an exercise while returning from the Red Flag exercise at the Eielson airbase in Alaska (US) being held from April 28 to May 13.

The other event is that Indian Army Chief General Dalbir Singh Suhag is slated to review the final phase of Shatrujeet – a massive defence exercise in the Thar Desert of Rajasthan later in April. The exercise seeks to validate the capability of the Army to “first generate and then maintain” intense offensive maneuvers backed by long-range artillery and the Air Force. It will include major airborne operations, including Para-dropping of 2,000-3,000 soldiers behind ‘enemy’ lines.

To conclude this overview, one may infer that from political and defense strategies shaping in a region which if spared from becoming the future battlefield of the Titans, a new world order is likely to emerge.
(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University, India).

Comments are closed.