South Asia map exercise in US causes concern in Pakistan

South Asia map exercise in US causes concern in Pakistan

Islamabad: A redrawn map of South Asia has been making the rounds among some Pakistani elite.

It shows their country truncated, reduced to an elongated sliver of land with the big bulk of India to the east, and an enlarged Afghanistan to the west.

That the map was first circulated as a theoretical exercise in some American neoconservative circles matters little here. It has fuelled a belief among Pakistanis, including members of the armed forces, that what the US really wants is the break-up of Pakistan, the only Muslim country with nuclear arms.

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“One of the biggest fears of the Pakistani military planners is the collaboration between India and Afghanistan to destroy Pakistan," said a senior Pakistani government official involved in strategic planning who insisted on anonymity as per diplomatic custom. “Some people feel the United States is colluding in this."

That notion may strike Americans as strange coming from an ally of 50 years. But as the incoming Obama administration tries to coax greater cooperation from Pakistan in the fight against militancy, it can hardly be ignored.

Pakistan, a 61-year-old country marbled by ethnic fault lines, is a collection of just four provinces, which often seem to have little in common. Virtually everyone of its borders, drawn almost arbitrarily in the last gasps of the British Empire, is disputed with its neighbours, not least Pakistan's bitter and much larger rival, India.

These facts and the insecurities that flow from them inform many of Pakistan's disagreements with the US.

The new democratically elected President, Asif Ali Zardari, has visited the US twice since assuming power three months ago. He has been generous in his praise of the Bush administration. But that stance wins him little popularity among a steadfastly anti-American public at home.

So how will the promise by President-elect Barack Obama for a new start between the US and Pakistan be received here? How can it be begun?

One possibility could be adopting a regional approach to what, it is increasingly apparent, are regional problems. American military commanders, including General David H. Petraeus, have started to argue forcefully that the solution to the conflict in Afghanistan must involve a wide array of neighbours.

Obama has said much the same—reducing tensions between Pakistan and India would allow Pakistan to focus on the real threat, the Al Qaeda and Taliban militants.

But such an approach faces sizable obstacles, the biggest being the conflict over Kashmir, which has been disputed since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and remains divided between them.

Pakistanis warn that the US should not appear too eager to mediate.

First, they caution, India has always regarded Kashmir as a bilateral question. India, they note, also faces a general election early next year, an inappropriate moment to push such an explosive issue.

Second, some Pakistanis are concerned about the reliability of the US as a fair mediator. “Given the US record on the Palestinian issue, where the Palestinians had to move 10 times backwards and the Israelis moved the goal posts, the same could happen here," said Zubair Khan, a former commerce minister who has watched Kashmir closely. It was discouraging, he added, that the US ignored the importance of the huge nonviolent protests by Muslims in Kashmir against Indian rule this summer.

Such distrust has been exacerbated by what Pakistanis see as the Bush administration's tilt toward India.

Exhibit A for the Pakistanis is India's nuclear deal with the US, which allows India to engage in nuclear trade even though it never joined the global Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. Pakistan received no comparable bargain.

Further, Pakistan is upset about the advances India is making in Afghanistan, with no checks from the US, Masood said. India has recently made big investments in Afghanistan, where Pakistan has been competing for influence. It has also offered training for Afghanistan's military, given assistance for a new parliament building in Kabul and has reopened consulates along the border with Pakistan.

The consulates, the Pakistanis charge, are used by India as cover to lend support to a long-running separatist movement in Baluchistan province. (Baluchistan was even made an independent state on the theoretical map, which accompanied an article by Ralph Peters titled “Blood Borders: How a Better Middle East Would Look," originally published in Armed Forces Journal.)

Both India and Pakistan in fact have a long and destructive history of putting in the knife. Exhibit A for India is the bombing in July of its embassy in Afghanistan, which American and Indian officials say can be traced to groups linked to Pakistan's spy agency.

If the Obama administration is indeed to convince Pakistanis that militancy, not the Indian Army, presents the gravest threat, it will not be easy.

The commander of American forces in Afghanistan, General David D. McKiernan, got a taste of the challenge this month, when he visited Islamabad and sat down with a group of about 70 members of Pakistan's Parliament at the residence of the US ambassador, Anne W. Patterson. Their attitude showed an almost total incomprehension of the reasons for American behaviour in the region after 11 September 2001.

“A couple of the questions I got were, ‘Why did you Americans come to Afghanistan when it was so peaceful before you got there?’" McKiernan recalled during an appearance at the Atlantic Council in Washington last week. “We have a lot of work to do," he told his audience.

Indeed, among ordinary Pakistanis, many still regard Al Qaeda more positively than the US, polls find. Even some commentators suggest that the US is actually financing the Taliban. The point is to tie down the Pakistani army, they say, leaving the way open for the Americans to grab Pakistan's nuclear weapons.

Recently, in the officer's mess in Bajaur, the northern tribal region where the Pakistani army is tied down fighting the militants, one officer offered his own theory: Osama bin Laden did not exist, he told a visiting journalist. Rather, he was a creation of the Americans, who needed an excuse to invade Afghanistan and encroach on Pakistan.

© 2008/The New York Times