Panetta’s sermons with a pinch of salt

By K.N. Pandita

Not much needs to be read between the lines in regard to Defence Secretary Leon Panetta’s two-day visit to New Delhi. He had been on a visit to five South East Asian countries with the last leg ending up in India.

Taking into account how the American mainstream press has viewed the event, there appears nothing that could be called either a special occasion or change in Washington’s policy towards India. In their foreign policy in particular, the Americans, like governments in all powerful countries, are pragmatic. Since we in India are not, being of feeble mind, we consider such visits of a senior official as change in policy.  

Obviously, in view of on-going strife in Afghanistan and very complicated situation in Pakistan with serious challenges to the security of her nuclear arsenal, the US looks out for redeeming elements in the South and South East Asia. India very much began to figure in their chemistry of security and defence since 2000. The perception deepened with the passage of time.

Secondly, China has been making its presence felt in the South East Asian waters. On the land, she covets more territories along the brooder with India, a situation which New Delhi wants to defuse by posturing love-hate antics. But from American point of view, it is the oceanic region that matters.

Yes, Washington wants India to play more effective role in Afghanistan. There is no likelihood of India playing any military role in that country. She is too timid to embark on an adventure in which she is sure to be confronted by Pakistani proxies. Strangely, India could not maintain her strategic presence in Tajikistan and missed the bus. A determined India would send a clear signal that she has strategic interests in Afghanistan.

At the most, India will be willing to provide Afghan army officers advanced training in her defence training institutes. But the question is whether the Afghan national army will be able to bear the burden which vacating American-NTO forces will force them to shoulder?

It has to be noted that in Vietnam the American Defence Minster gaffed that both India and China were serious threat to the US. He did not define whether he meant economic, military or political threat. US Defence establishment was quick to change the tone and tenor of Panetta’s statement while he was preparing for his scheduled visit to India.

If the US understands the importance and significance of Indi’s role in security area in the South East, she will have to translate this into practice. India should not and cannot take consolation in the logic that the US is fighting terror in Afghanistan-Pakistan and thus it is helping India indirectly. India has been fighting terror since 1990, all by herself, and certainly against odds including not too favourable a stance by Washington. As India fought the proxy war unleashed by the terrorists against her, Washington continued to pour billions of dollars into Pakistan’s kitty, most of which went to her defence purchases essentially directed against India as she wants to maintain parity with India militarily.  A good bit also went to the pockets of Pakistani Generals.

Defence cooperation between India and the US has deepened for last one decade. India is the largest partner in defence exercises with the US. This area of cooperation was thrown up essentially by the new tactics which the terrorists, whether in Kashmir or in the Eastern part of the country, threw up. The US is also fighting the scourge of terrorism, and, therefore, there is logic in two countries coordinating their efforts to streamline counter-terrorist practices over ground.

US Defence Department has made no secret of the fact that the US has large interests in defence deals with India. She is eying an overall deal of nearly 8 billion US dollars. The two sides are inching forward in their defence deals and it takes its own time. Washington regrets that she failed to clinch the Boeing aircraft deal with India, but would want to open the door to defence equipment deals that are almost in the pipeline.

In New Delhi, Leon Panetta sermonized that “Pakistan is a complicated relationship, complicated for both of our countries but it is one that we must continue to work to improve. India and the United States will need to continue to engage Pakistan, overcoming our respective — and often deep — differences with Pakistan to make all of South Asia peaceful and prosperous.”  The US never spoke of “complicated relationship” all those years when India was crying at the top of her voice that Pakistan was becoming the cesspool of international terrorism and the US should take note of it. Even today while Panetta is making these assertions, we have reports that the US has a plan of building a new huge embassy in Islamabad at a cost of 2 billion dollars so as to make it America’s largest embassy in the world. The US has often been saying that she would not allow Pakistan to get dismembered and the terminal cash doles that come in plenty are part of that policy. People well acquainted with the nitty-gritty of Pak-American politics know that these largesse’s come to Islamabad not direct from Washington but via Riyadh circuit. Osama suffered more for his sins against Riyadh than against the NY Business Centre.

In final analysis, in politics there are no permanent friends and no permanent foes, but there are permanent enemies. New Delhi has to welcome the friendly advances of the US. New Delhi has to acknowledge the contribution of the US in containing terrorism. But she has her national interests. We need oil from Iran if we have to maintain the level of economic development. As the US continued huge financial assistance to Pakistan while that assistance was being used against India, India should continue to have good relations with Iran which does not really go against the interests of the US unless the latter means to be hegemonic.

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