by Dr. Richard L. Benkin (June 2011)
Americans of all ages and political stripes were in the streets on May 1 cheering, waving the flag, and chanting “USA, USA!” They were out all night—some of them mere children when the September 11th terror attacks changed our nation forever—to celebrate the killing of the man behind those attacks: Osama Bin Laden. At a time of bitter partisanship, no one saw this as anything but an American victory—an operation that began under President George W. Bush and culminated under President Barack Obama. That night, Americans sorely needed a sign that US greatness is not a thing of the past, and Bin Laden’s killing provided one. The euphoria has subsided, however, replaced with the realization that the death of even this terrible man does not mean the death of radical Islam or any of the groups dedicated to its triumph and our demise. Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah, Lashkar e taiba, and myriad other terror groups continue to murder innocents.
Aside from the inevitable political jockeying that followed, the subject that continues to occupy Americans in the wake of the Bin Laden killing is Pakistan and the nature of our relationship with that country. On the one hand, Americans cannot believe that Bin Laden could have lived for years in a large compound less than 60 miles (100 kilometers) from its capital of Islamabad and 800 yards (700 meters) from the Pakistan Military Academy without Pakistani officials knowing about it; and many now ask how Pakistan can call itself an ally. Its officials object to the US operation, and its citizens hold mass demonstrations protesting Bin Laden’s killing—even though neither objected to Bin Laden’s mass murder of Americans. Nor do they find it necessary to show the same “understanding” they so glibly demand of us. Diplomats and other insiders left and right, however, acknowledge Pakistani duplicity while tolerating it as necessary for effectively prosecuting the war in Afghanistan; as an Obama spokesperson recently said, in Pakistan, “you have to accept what you find.”
But reality demands more from us, much more. We had better get it right—and soon because American troops will begin quitting Afghanistan in two months, creating a power vacuum as they do. The notion that the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai can fill the void is not a sustainable position. The regime lacks the physical and financial resources to maintain security in the country as well as the hearts and minds of the Afghan peoples. With the Karzai government out of contention, the list of possible alternatives is not encouraging.
The Taliban could return to power, even though the US objective was to prevent that and not to get Bin Laden. The Islamist group still operates in force throughout much of the country, a fact they displayed just days before Bin Laden’s death with a major prison break that freed almost 500 Taliban fighters and with the deadliest attack on Americans in over six years. Iran, which shares an almost 1000 kilometer border with Afghanistan, is another candidate. Afghanistan remains a nation of ethnic groups and tribes, the third largest of which is the Hazara, an overwhelmingly Shi’ite group living in the center of this Sunni Muslim country. The persecution they faced under the Taliban has not stopped with the current regime. Taliban insurgents attack them, clerics and fatwas demonize them, and the constitution allows it, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom and others. As the world’s leading Shi’ite nation, Iran could fashion itself as their protectors and take effective power in Afghanistan’s heartland—all while being hailed as a human rights defender. Neither should it be forgotten that China borders Afghanistan, and its meddling in the region is growing. It effectively annexed Kashmir’s northeast using the same rationale as it did to grab Tibet and took a “great leap forward” in regional ties with last year’s Sino-Pakistan nuclear pact. The Chinese are increasingly active diplomatically with the Karzai government and have expanded their economic base by, to take one example, developing a major copper field in Afghanistan’s Logar province.
As a titular US ally, Pakistan remains the major candidate to take power, especially with the American government’s penchant to tolerate Pakistani duplicity. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently referred to the “organic connection” between it and Afghanistan, whose Islamist insurgents have worked cooperatively with their Pakistani counterparts and found supporters in its military and its intelligence service, which has made the US list of terrorist organizations. Might the US withdrawal render the border between an Islamist Pakistan and an Islamist Afghanistan nothing more than a formality along the lines of that which separates Syria and Lebanon?
Given those multiple nightmare scenarios, it is perplexing that the Obama administration continues to ignore the one regional power whose interests are not inimical to those of the United States: India. The administration and its spokesperson’s fatalism must be replaced by a new paradigm that recognizes the free world’s long term interests and the strengths we can use to leverage them. India fits that bill for at least four basic reasons: its foreign policy interests and those of the United States coincide; it is the only effective counterweight against otherwise unchecked Chinese expansionism; the one thing that scares the pants off the Pakistanis and might get them to behave is the specter of increased Indian influence in the region; and India has the economic, military, and intelligence capability to carry it out effectively.
Like the United States and Israel, India is at the top of the Islamists’ list of hated targets. Indians have faced a near unbroken terror onslaught by Islamist and Maoist insurgents, who have ideological and other ties with Pakistan and China respectively. In May 2010, representatives of both met in the South India city of Kerala and formally united “to fight against the common enemy.” Their actions have included highly visible terror attacks in major cities like Mumbai and Pune, abduction of public officials for ransom, and coordinated attacks on military bases like the one not far from where I was in 2010. A regular diet of individual, Islamist-inspired crimes quietly plagues much of the country, as well. In the Indian town of Meerut, for instance, only 65 kilometers (40 miles) from New Delhi, residents report frequent attacks by a growing Islamic presence, including the murder of a Hindu community leader only five days prior to my 2011 visit. In 2007, television journalist Madhuri Singh uncovered the imposition of Sharia law in Mundogarhi (also situated close to the Indian capital), which persists despite the government’s efforts to retake legal control that followed her revelations. India, unlike Pakistan, has not seen major demonstrations protesting Bin Laden’s death, and its intelligence services actually fights on our side in combating terrorism.
As critical as stopping a resurgent Taliban and its allies is to both the United States and India, putting an effective halt to Chinese expansion in the region is equally so. In March, the Chinese hosted Karzai in Beijing where he was treated to closed-door meetings with China’s highest officials. This “charm offensive,” as Tim Sullivan of the American Enterprise Institute/Center for Defense Studies calls it, resulted in “agreements on expanding economic cooperation, ensuring favorable tariffs on Afghan exports, and creating scholarships for technical training programs across a range of critical fields: commerce, communications, education, health, economics, and counternarcotics.” Not only is this designed to garner greater Chinese control over South Asia and its considerable resources, but it is also part of China’s greater strategy to encircle India; a strategy that has included major efforts in Pakistan and Bangladesh (both with strong Islamist elements), and Nepal (which is communist ruled). Incredibly, rather than recognizing the threat to our common interests and partnering with India to stop it, “the Obama administration is practically rolling out an Afghan red carpet for China,” according to a respected Asian affairs analyst out of Singapore.
It is all connected. On April 16, according to Matthew Rosenberg, writing in the Wall Street Journal, “Pakistan is lobbying Afghanistan's president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him instead to look to Pakistan—and its Chinese ally—for help in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding the economy, Afghan officials say.” The article goes on to note that the effort came not from some rogue official but from Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani himself. Does that sound like the words of an ally—no matter how Pakistan apologists try to spin it?
There are several things the United States can and should do—now, while we still have a strong presence in the region—starting with an intensive diplomatic effort to engage India instead of China to further American interests, not Chinese. With over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, the US still has the gravitas to influence events in the country; and the best place to change direction and use that weight is in Bamiyam, Wardak, and Parwan provinces. India is among several countries bidding for right to extract iron ore from the enormous Hagijak mine. Fifteen of the 22 companies bidding on the mine are Indian, but India has two problems its Chinese competitors do not: security with the mine located near the Afghan-Pakistan border and transporting the minerals through hostile territory once they extract them. Both can be solved in the same way that also will address some other issues. The transport problem is less than 400 miles of Pakistan that separates Afghanistan from India’s Punjab state. Now, whereas we can expect Pakistan to balk at letting Indian goods (and security forces) cross their territory, we should not expect them to stop their ally—and financial benefactor—the United States. The security and transport problems likely will keep the Indians from getting the contract and consequently hand that mineral wealth to the Chinese: India loses and so does the United States. But changing the Indian bid to a joint venture with US transport and security could be enough to overcome that. Moreover, the US anticipates some presence in Afghanistan after major troop withdrawals, and groups that help develop the nation’s mineral wealth and infrastructure would be welcomed by the government in Kabul.
The Hagijak mine project is only the most obvious point at which the India-US relationship can begin to provide a strong presence in Afghanistan that can help stave off an impending foreign policy disaster. While the details will vary, this is the sort of initiative the Obama administration should be making now to protect our interests, strengthen a strategic relationship with the one free nation in the region, and counters China’s economic imperialism and its growing strategic alliance in the Muslim world. Hagijak and Afghanistan are only the beginning of what could be gained from such an alliance. In a conversation last year in Chicago, former Indian cabinet minister Dr. Swami Subramanian (an expert on regional economic and political forces) laid out a plan that would transfer a major source of Chinese economic power to the US and India.
For this effort to succeed, the United States and India would have to recast their relationship as one of mutual respect between two great and independent powers. Gone would be US animosity toward India for its almost knee-jerk support for every UN measure that conforms to the outdated leftist philosophy of the its “non-aligned movement.” Gone would be Indian animosity for US supporting Pakistan and gone is the almost craven political correctness with which both current governments approach foreign policy, especially the Muslim world and Islamic threat. The current regime in India, as well as its counterpart in the United States is guilty of appeasing terrorist entities (and terror-supporting nations) and of looking the other way when their immediate targets are not their own citizens; for example, India’s UN support for the pro-Hamas Goldstone report and America’s refusal to support Indian efforts against Lashkar e Taibe and the ISI.
How soon do we have to turn on a dime or face yet more denigration of America’s international profile? On May 10, Rajiv Chandrasekaran reported in The Washington Post that the Obama administration was “seeking to use the killing of Osama bin Laden to accelerate a negotiated settlement with the Taliban and hasten the end of the Afghanistan war.” A negotiated settlement with the Taliban! The clock is ticking, and America’s ability to influence events in the country exists only to the extent that we are there. Once out of the region, the US will be powerless to stop Islamist or Chinese expansion to the detriment of our interests—unless we have an ally in place that shares them.
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