There’s no comfort in distance

There’s no comfort in distance

By M.J. Akbar | 27 September, 2014
Neither America nor India can take comfort in distance, for if we do not cooperate to reach the enemy in all its myriad forms, our enemies will cooperate to reach us.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will speak to the people in New York and talk to the government in Washington during his five-day visit to the United States. He has generated enough excitement among non-resident Indians to last a generation. And even staid, stoic Washington, the city of bureaucrats, legislators, academics and intelligence officials has begun to register the reverberations around an unusual Indian leader who has begun to redefine oratory and energise diplomacy in a manner rarely seen in recent times.

Narendra Modi and his host Barack Obama belong to that democratic aristocracy of brilliant speakers who mainly have to compete with themselves. Oratory is as old as language. It became a political weapon in the modern sense during the French Revolution when the power of speech overthrew a King of France, and his imitative ministers, who considered conversation with the people beneath their dignity. The revolution, by releasing speech from the captivity of monarchs, set egalitarianism on its long journey towards contemporary democracy, escorted by an army of ideas. India and America are not only fountainheads of free will, but also the breeding hives of opportunity.

In theory, India and America will have few problems in identifying the nature and location of the enemy. In practice, there is a problem called Pakistan.

Diplomacy is the art of managing contradictions, limiting conflict, exploiting positive opportunity and stretching the elasticity of cooperation. The plus side will be comparatively easy to negotiate, even through bumps like differences of opinion on trade rules. The relationship has lost its impetus in the last few years, but there is enough residual goodwill to create room for disagreement and move on. The challenge will lie in mapping the parameters of a strategic relationship that recognises the truth of substantial dangers clearly visible in the turbulent warzone that stretches from the innumerable conflicts within Pakistan, and finds its uneven way towards the wars of Africa.

Neither America nor India can take comfort in distance, for if we do not cooperate to reach the enemy in all its myriad forms, our enemies will cooperate to reach us. These are wars not just for geography. Space is secondary. The primary battle is of ideology. This is a conflict, at heart, between the inclusive concept of a democracy, in which every citizen irrespective of faith is an equal; and bigoted theocracy, in which power rests in the control of self-appointed fantasists who use terrorism as a permanent strategy.

In theory, India and America will have few problems in identifying the nature and location of the enemy. In practice, there is a problem called Pakistan. For India, Pakistan has now become an indistinguishable part of the problem. America still insists on treating Pakistan as part of the solution. Washington continues to believe that the most important political force in Pakistan, its army, can be used against theocratic militancy. India's analysis is sharply divergent: the Pak army has become a seasoned master of subterfuge, showing a benign camouflage to the Pentagon and the White House, while it promotes the Taliban in Afghanistan and radical Jihadists elsewhere.

It is true that Pakistan's credibility has eroded in the West within the last few years, but it has not disappeared. Even the sanctuary provided to Osama bin Laden by the Pak military, or the continuing support to terrorists like Hafiz Saeed, is not deemed sufficient evidence to recognise the truth. The startling fact is that Washington continues to protect its bubble theories despite being aware that the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, runs his war against America and Nato from a very safe haven in Quetta.

The dangers of delusion mount each day. The latest assessment from Afghanistan is that Taliban has become so emboldened that it is preparing to mount a conventional offensive in Helmand province. It believes that the number of Afghan troops who are fit for actual battle is no more than ten or fifteen thousand, and that any sharp defeat will scatter the Afghan army into old ethnic and tribal directions.

In addition, there is serious danger to the region from Iraq, and the rise of a Sunni Caliphate that seeks to become a second base [along with a Talibanised Afghanistan] for international war. We cannot be certain how much military cooperation Prime Minister Modi will, or can, offer; or indeed how much will be required. But this is an area where the strategic equation between India and America can be immensely strengthened. The best strategic partnership emerges from the bonds of national interest. This is where the two national interests merge.Strategic cooperation in the Pacific will not rocket into the headlines, which is a relief. But this will strengthen another important link. There is however an unmentioned challenge before the Prime Minister and the President as they meet in the White House. They have to repair a trust deficit which has long bedevilled relations between the two capitals. Sometimes hope has outpaced reality, and often indifference has killed possibility.

Narendra Modi walks a straight line. Washington will respect that.

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