We need to reassess the geopolitical shifts taking place in the US-led ‘war on terror’ on the one hand and power struggles within the Muslim world on the other.
The news-making visit of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman to India on the heels of the horrifying terror attack on a CRPF convoy near Srinagar would be interpreted in many ways by strategic analysts here. India’s response was in line with the policy of developing bilateral relations with all countries, big or small, on the basis of mutuality of economic and security interests. The visit was protocol-wise de-hyphenated from the Crown Prince’s much publicised sojourn at Islamabad but the context of Pulwama massacre of Indian troops undoubtedly put the two visits in a common frame. India’s interest in Saudi oil and investments was evidently a prime reason for India putting the event on a special footing, considering the long range importance of befriending the future ruler of Saudi Arabia. The effusive young dignitary on his part needed favourable attention of a major power like India to wind down the adverse impact of the devious killing of Jamaal Khashoggi—a leading dissident of the regime—by Saudi intelligence operatives in October last year.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who personally received the Crown Prince at the tarmac, highlighted the need for India and Saudi Arabia to take their friendship to the level of “strategic partnership”. The visit somewhere projected India’s success in creating excellent relationships with its neighbours, to the east as well as the west. India might have expected the Crown Prince to be on our side of the fence on Pulwama after the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed had owned the responsibility for the dreadful fidayeen offensive. This did not happen because while he did condemn the attack, he clearly tried to bail out Pakistan, which is not surprising considering the depth of bonding that has existed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Perhaps wisdom lies in benefiting from the friendship with Saudi Arabia in spite of this limiting factor.
A reality check on the brief Saudi visit brings out some facts that have a bearing on the geopolitics of South Asia, challenges to India’s Pakistan policy and the perennial threat of faith-based terror that this country may face in future—more or less alone. The optics of Mohammed bin Salman’s twin visits to Islamabad and Delhi will not go unnoticed for the difference of approach the Crown Prince adopted in the two capitals. The young Saudi dignitary was clearly taken in by the “leadership” of Prime Minister Imran Khan, was appreciative of Pakistan’s “fight against terrorists inside” particularly in its northwest and was forthcoming in extending a huge financial aid to a long standing ally. For India the joint statement at Islamabad touched a nerve when it dismissed the moves in the United Nations to get Lashkar-e-Tayyaba chief Hafiz Saeed and Jaish head Masood Azhar declared as global terrorists, as “a politically motivated exercise”.
The joint statement issued in Delhi refrained from pointing finger towards Pakistan in the context of Pulwama, spoke in generic terms of the need for dismantling terrorist infrastructure and countering terror financing and—for whatever satisfaction India could derive from this—called on “all countries to renounce the use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy”. Announcement of Saudi investments potentially worth $100 billion was the more attractive outcome from India’s point of view. Economic partnership with Saudi Arabia apart, the significance of the Crown Prince’s visit perhaps lies in the fact that he tried to achieve a progressive balancing of relationship of his country with both Pakistan and India. India however, has to guard against Pakistan slowly but steadily getting out of the isolation that it had faced in the international community in recent times and also managing somehow to claim credit for acting against the Islamic radicals. Pakistan is also reinventing the line that the terror attacks on India were the doing of non-state actors.
India’s security set-up would surely reassess the geopolitical shifts that are taking place in the play of the US-led “war on terror” on one hand and the power struggles within the Muslim world on the other. The Organisation of Islamic Conference chaired by Saudi Arabia considers Pakistan as its key member, which provides strength to the bloc. More specifically Saudi Arabia inducted the former Army chief of Pakistan, General Raheel Sharif to head the Islamic Military Coalition against Terrorism for combating the radicals of ISIS and Al Qaeda. For the US-led West as well as Saudi Arabia the fight against terror means putting down these “revivalists” who carry the historical legacy of Wahhabi jihad of the last century and who attacked the US as a political adversary and the Saudi kingdom as an American puppet. Interestingly, the statements of Mohammed bin Salman in Islamabad and Delhi emphasised on the need for a dialogue between India and Pakistan, something that President Donald Trump also hoped for even as he in no uncertain terms denounced the “horrible attack” at Pulwama and called for Pakistan to end the safe havens enjoyed by all terrorist groups on its soil.
The Pakistan army is managing to escape the Indian charge of complicity with India-specific Islamic terrorists of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen, by pretending that it was willing to prosecute these “non-state actors”, provided there evidence was given against them. Also, notwithstanding US displeasure against Pakistan for its duplicitous approach in combating the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, Pakistan retains its place as an “ally” in the war on terror, substantially because of the validation of its role by Saudi Arabia. The great success of Indian diplomacy in getting the US to end the difference between “good terrorists” and “bad terrorists” may whittle away with the passage of time, particularly if the Pakistan strategy of regaining a sway in Afghanistan makes some headway. The visit of the Saudi Crown Prince has apparently helped Pakistan on all these counts. In the times ahead India will have to deal on its own with the escalating proxy war let loose by Pakistan with the help of terrorists across the Islamic spectrum that are available to it as strategic assets and tactical instruments.
D.C. Pathak is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau