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Af-Pak region

The twain shall meet


The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was founded in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the perceived threat of communist expansionism spearheaded by the Soviet Union. Therefore, its critics believe that with the collapse of the latter in 1991, it ought to have been rendered redundant. Yet, NATO has nimbly - though some would say controversially - re-invented itself;and earlier this week staged its best attended summit ever.

Nearly 60 heads of government congregated in United States president Barack Obama's characterful home city of Chicago. They reflected 28 NATO member countries - from its original standard bearers who tenant the north-western rim of Europe to erstwhile East European communist states - not to mention partner countries, among them Russia.

In fulfillment of its remit to defend Europe, NATO presently justifies its continuance by embarking on a programme to erect an elaborate missile defence system in Europe, much to Russia's annoyance. The United States attempts to allay Moscow's apprehensions by pointing at a threat posed by Iran, which is at best unsubstantiated.

However, it was NATO's extended role in the Af-Pak region that was the primary focus of these confabulations. Contrary to earlier expectations, Pakistani president, Asif Zardari, did not relent on re-opening supply routes for NATO forces in Afghanistan - closed since November - amid reports of Islamabad's exorbitant demands over passage fees. Ostensibly, Pakistan is insisting on an apology from the US over the Salala incident - in which 24 Pakistani soldiers were killed in an Americanled aerial attack on two Pakistani border posts.

Zardari is unequivocally the most pro-American of Pakistani politicians. Nevertheless, with an election looming in a mere nine months, there could be shrewdness behind his stoicism. The US - leader of the NATO pack, and Pakistan's biggest benefactor - is currently the most hated country in Pakistan. Standing up to it in this climate could well turn the tide for Zardari.

The summit stressed that Russia and central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan had already come to NATO's rescue, albeit as a more expensive alternative transit arrangement. All the same, Obama made it a point to publicly snub Zardari. The US president refused to meet his Pakistani counterpart bilaterally. At the opening Afghanistan session of the conference he remarked: "I want to welcome the presence of President (Hamid) Karzai (of Afghanistan), as well as officials from central Asia and Russia, nations that have an important perspective and that continue to provide critical transit for ISAF supplies. " No mention of Pakistan, once pampered as a key ally in the 'war against terror'.

More tellingly, when he met the media, Obama underlined: "It is in our interest to see a successful, stable Pakistan and it is in Pakistan's interest to work with us and the world community to ensure that they themselves are not consumed by extremism that is in their midst. "

In the past, a military-inspired Pakistan's inclination for defence pacts with the West was manifested in its membership of CENTO and SEATO. With a Pervez Musharraf-stewarded regime deemed to be a trusted collaborator by the former US president, George W Bush, and the Pentagon, Pakistan was accommodated as a NATO partner. But to agree to co-operate and then double-cross has unprecedentedly isolated Pakistan in the international community.

In contrast, India's Nehruvian foreign policy not only pursued non-alignment, but consciously gave a wide berth to multilateral military alliances. India's distance from NATO is, consequently, both understandable and consistent with its philosophy on the matter.

Intriguingly, of course, NATO and India's interests in terms of normalising Afghanistan and preventing the return of the Taliban absolutely coincide. When US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was asked to comment on this, her office pointed to her statement in Delhi earlier this month. "I think we all understand that it's imperative we (US and India) continue to work together to provide as much support for a stable, secure Afghanistan moving forward, " she emphasised.

The fact is the Indian Navy is already working in tandem with NATO in anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast. And India has also participated in a NATO seminar on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Interestingly, Michael Ruhle, a section head in NATO's Emerging Security Challenges Division, wrote in a review on the organisation's website: "NATO's long-term success in Afghanistan hinges on the success of the civilian reconstruction efforts that India and others provide. " He added that there is a need for India and NATO to talk to and work with each other on challenges like cyber invasions, energy security and failing states.

Conceivably, consultation in such areas will do no harm. But there would be little value in India entering into a formal partnership with NATO and certainly no purchase in it becoming party to military adventures. At the same time, South Block will quietly hope NATO will leave behind a sustainable legacy in Afghanistan, so that New Delhi's generous assistance to Kabul does not transpire to be wasteful expenditure.

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