Two facts emerged in the space of a few days last week that have made India deeply suspicious of Washington's intentions in the region. One, US secretary of state-designate Condoleezza Rice told senators that the administration of President George W Bush has a "contingency plan" to prevent "Islamic fundamentalists" from getting access to Pakistan's nuclear weapons if "something happened" to Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf and they succeeded in capturing power.
India had hardly finished munching on this revelation's mind-boggling implications for regional stability when another fact emerged. Award-winning journalist Seymour Hersh claimed in a New Yorker article, the substance of which was not refuted by Washington, that Musharraf is fully cooperating with the United States in penetrating Iranian soil and looking for sensitive nuclear-related sites with the help of highly sophisticated devices, so that at an appropriate time these can be destroyed by pinpoint air and missile attacks and deep-penetration commando strikes.
Hersh claimed that a US commando task force in South Asia is already working closely with a group of Pakistani scientists who had dealt with their Iranian counterparts earlier. This task force, aided by information from Pakistan, has been penetrating eastern Iran in a hunt for underground nuclear-weapons installations. In exchange for this cooperation, an intelligence official told Hersh, Musharraf has received assurances that his government will not have to turn over Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's atomic bomb, to face questioning over his role in selling nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea.
India understood perhaps more than any other country the magnitude of danger to which all this exposes the Pakistani president. Handing over Pakistan's nuclear arsenal to the US, as Rice's statement in a formal confirmation hearing implied, is certainly not going to increase Musharraf's popularity rating either in the country at large or in the military he heads. Several army officers are even now facing trials in cases relating to two recent assassination attempts on the life of the Pakistani president in which he barely survived. It is an open secret that several Pashtoon officers in the Pakistan army are deeply unhappy with the president owing to his incursions into the Pashtoon-populated Waziristan areas of the North-West Frontier Province in a bid to find al-Qaeda leaders at the United States' behest. This had never happened before, not even when the region was under British control. Pashtoons have the second-largest presence in the Pakistani military after the Punjabis. Several hundred Pakistani soldiers died battling their own people in the area without achieving any appreciable success. Top al-Qaeda leadership, likely hiding in the area, continues to remain intact, forcing the US recently to double the bounty on Osama bin Laden's head.
The impact of Musharraf's involvement in US Special Forces penetration in Iran is going to be even more devastating. This would particularly outrage the influential Shi'ite population in Pakistan. Though a minority of just about 20% in the country, the Shi'ites are influential in the Pakistani military, particularly in the air force. Many believe that Shi'ite air force officers had a hand in the assassination - though officially declared an accidental helicopter crash - of former president General Zia-ul-Haq. Shi'ites were angry with him for the repression he had unleashed on the Shi'ites in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. The army commando officer who had actually led the repression was none other than then-brigadier and now general and president Pervez Musharraf. Clearly no love is lost between the Shi'ite officers and Musharraf. How the present revelations regarding US penetration into Iran with his help will affect them can hardly be in much doubt.
Already marked for assassination by Islamic extremists, with help from elements in the army he heads, why would Musharraf put his neck even further on the chopping block? What has the ever-generous US offered him now? Can this be best explained by what veteran Indian columnist Inder Malhotra calls America's "mammoth munificence" toward Pakistan? Or is there more to it than meets the eye?
Clearly, as a major regional power, India cannot remain indifferent to what Malhotra called "these dangerous goings on". But what exactly are India's worries? It might not be such a bad thing after all, some strategists feel, if the US rather than Muslim extremists control Pakistan's nuclear arsenal in the event "something happens" to President Musharraf. Opposition Islamist leader Maulana Fazlul Rehman, the redoubtable mentor of the Taliban, does indeed remain a serious candidate for the position of prime minister in the present political configuration of the National Assembly.
But what would be the point of the US providing Pakistan with credible delivery systems, such as F-16s, for its nuclear bombs, particularly if it is worried about something happening to its best bet in the country? India has been told that the decision to supply F-16s to military-ruled, Islamist Pakistan cannot be reversed. US officials are reported to have told their Indian counterparts that the number of F-16s supplied to Pakistan could be as high as 70, and not 18 as was previously expected. And this in the face of long-standing objections from India, a strategic US ally and a natural partner as the biggest secular democracy on Earth. And also this decision has been made at a time when Musharraf, as a former high-level Pakistani diplomat told Seymour Hersh, has authorized the expansion of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons arsenal.
India has not forgotten that last year Musharraf became the first and so far only South Asian leader to be welcomed at Camp David in the United States. Even the person hailed then as a statesman, former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was not offered this honor. President Bush announced a US$3 billion package of military and economic aid to Pakistan, the first installment of which has already been sanctioned by the US Congress. Not long afterward, Pakistan was given the status of a major non-North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally, making it eligible for more military assistance.
So what is the real extent of US largess to Pakistan since September 11, 2001? US-based Indian analyst Kaushik Kapisthalam recently came out with a study being widely quoted in the Indian media. According to him, the US provided Pakistan with $600 million in emergency assistance to save Islamabad from defaulting on repayment of foreign loans. This was followed by the writing off of $1.5 billion of Pakistani debt, pressure on the International Monetary Fund to pay more than $1.5 billion for poverty reduction, pressure on Western donors for rescheduling the bulk of Pakistan's $38 billion external debt, and annual economic assistance of $500 million to $700 million.
Pakistan received a total of more than $1.1 billion in military and economic assistance in 2002 alone. It also received $1.32 billion in military assistance between January 2003 and September 2004. Meanwhile, the United States pays Pakistan $100 million every month for using military bases and facilities on Pakistani territory.
Another and even more suspicious aspect of US behavior toward Pakistan is what strategic analyst G Parthasarathi, a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, calls "an astonishing measure of American forbearance in dealing with a Pakistani terrorist involved in kidnapping American tourists in India, killing an American journalist in Karachi, the [September 11] attacks on New York and Washington and the attack on our parliament". Parthasarathi is referring to Omar Sheikh Mohammad, who was released from an Indian jail in Kashmir along with two other prominent terrorists and escorted to Kabul by then Indian external affairs minister Jaswant Singh as a deal to save the lives of the passengers of Indian Airlines flight IC814 that had been hijacked from Kathmandu and taken to Kabul. Sheikh was later arrested for his involvement in the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi and sentenced to death.
Parthasarathi documents the instances of US forbearance toward this terrorist. Even though sentences of anti-terrorism courts in Pakistan are expeditiously confirmed and implemented, he says, Sheikh's appeal still lies pending. Eyebrows were raised when Sheikh surrendered to an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) official, Brigadier Ejaz Shah, in Lahore and not to the police. Shah was known to be a protege of generals Musharraf and Aziz Khan.
Shah's subsequent nomination as high commissioner to Australia was rejected by the Australian government. He is now Pakistan's ambassador to Indonesia. What is interesting to note is that ambassadorial appointments are normally given in Pakistan to retired generals and not low-ranking ISI brigadiers.
It has now been reported by a respected Lahore-based Pakistani journalist, Amir Mir, continues Parthasarathi, that during his interrogation by US and Pakistani investigators, Sheikh revealed that he had been on the payroll of the Pakistani ISI and that the terrorist attacks on the Kashmir State Assembly building in October 2001 and the Indian parliament in December 2001 had the backing of the ISI.
Amir Mir has also confirmed that Sheikh transferred a sum of $100,000 that had been provided to him by then ISI chief General Mahmood Ahmed to Mohammad Atta - the leader of the hijackers involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks. He also alleges that the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) believes that Omar met Atta during one of his visits to Kandahar and knew of his plans for the September 11 terrorist strikes. On October 9, 2001, the Pakistani daily Dawn reported that the ISI director general, Lieutenant-General Mahmoud Ahmed, was fired after FBI investigators established a link between him and a $100,000 wire transfer to Atta in the summer of 2000. This report was also carried by the Wall Street Journal. Parthasarathi's comment: "There does appear to be a conspiracy of silence on this score, because Syed Omar Sheikh is evidently a man who knows too much and can embarrass both the Musharraf dispensation and the Bush administration."
Meanwhile, Indian suspicions at these intriguing developments between Pakistan and the US are continuing to deepen. What exactly is Washington's game in South Asia? What used to be muted speculation confined to living rooms in Delhi is now being articulated. To the question of why Musharraf is putting his life on line for the sake of the US in such a blatant fashion, for instance, Malhotra answers: "The obvious answer is that Musharraf expects to extract from the US a far higher price than he has received so far. What can that price be? This, dear Watson, is elementary. For a man who hopes to go down in history as the leader who achieved Pakistan's objectives in Kashmir, he needs America's powerful support for an Indo-Pakistani agreement on Kashmir that 'does justice to Pakistan'. War can never attain this result, and what has been lost on the battlefield cannot be won back at the conference table."
India has been agonizing over the real nature of US-Pakistan relations for years. After September 11, New Delhi expected Washington to come down hard on Pakistan, known to be a hub of Islamic extremism and terrorism in the region. Instead, the US came to the rescue of what was then a clearly failing state under a blatant military dictatorship. Even after facts of Pakistani intelligence's involvement in September 11 came to light, the US has been not only forgiving but supportive to an extraordinary degree. As a result, Indian strategists are now finding it difficult to counter conspiracy theorists who continue to claim that the "war on terrorism" is mere shadow-boxing and that September 11 had been organized by Islamabad with the help of al-Qaeda at US behest after the neo-conservatives ruling the US needed a pretext for fulfilling their imperialist agenda. There used to be few takers for such wild imaginings in India; but apparently things are changing. There are too many discrepancies and inconsistencies in official US claims that even the most incredible conspiratorial claims are beginning to gain credence.