What I have seen so far has centered on the menu--largely vegetarian in respect of Mr. Singh's dietary habits--who came, whether by invitation or no, what Mrs. Obama wore and the fact that she used Indian-American designers and wore lots of bangles, who played as house musicians, and so forth. All very well, and I actually consider the fact that the First Lady wore bangles and dresses with a lot of cloth-of-silver thread important for the respect they suggest of traditional Indian clothing and fabrics. She might have respected Indian modesty by not going strapless agains the Indian First Lady's sari. But so far so good--I guess.
Except if that's all we have to say about this visit, this dinner, this guest, and most of all this timing, then we deserve the shrinking influence so many scholars and journalists attribute to the United States now and into the future. Some of what follows depends heavily on Ahmed Rashid's Taliban (Yale, 2000), an acclaimed account of the rise of the Taliban and the climate in which they developed. That would include the geopolitical climate. Enter India.
India? What about Pakistan, our supposed allies in our funding and their stage-managing the fight against the Soviets from 1979-89, and now? More pointedly, why India, and why all the talk about the Indian-American partnership as though between equals, less than a week before President Obama lays out his Afghanistan policy in a speech at West Point next Tuesday? Why, indeed.
If Gordon Brown probably has a sulk on, one can imagine chairs thrown at television screens in Islamabad, and the senior officers of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in apoplectic fits. You remember the ISI, the Taliban's chief handlers and enablers, who see the Taliban as the leading edge of a pan-Islamist movement. Unfortunately, the Taliban's Pakistan-encouraged extremism has scared everyone in the region and beyond. The Taliban take the Wahhabi movement within Sunni Islam to a bizarre fare-thee-well that even their longtime backer the Saudis, themselves the chief advocates and stewards of Wahhabism, found alarming. They voted with their checkbooks. This all gets us to the situation about ten years ago, before 9/11 and its aftermath.
Some things have changed. The geopolitics have not, except that the Pakistanis have made a half-hearted show of fighting their own Taliban movement--the word simply means "students," as in students at Islamic madrassas, some funded by Pakistan, some by the Saudis. They have attacked South Waziristan with great fanfare. The experts on the Afghan conflict think they need to but will not go after more dangerous groups in North Waziristan. In short, our very unreliable "friends" in Pakistan continue to do little to contain let alone turn the tide of this war, even as it threatens to erupt towards their heartland as much as across the Afghan border.
Once again, enter India. Pakistan's arch-enemy and the excuse for so long for Pakistan to keep their military pointed east toward their borders in Kashmir and Punjab and ignore the Pathan/Pashtun tribal areas along their western border with Afghanistan. But if you stop for a second and see Afghanistan as a problem that leaks across international borders, following both ethnic and sectarian relationships, you see a different picture, one Rashid saw ten years ago. Iran nearly invaded Afghanistan over the Taliban's massacre of the Hazara, a Shia ethnic minority. Turkmenistan stands, or stood, to make a great deal of money in a pipeline deal, but not through a country engulfed in civil war. Uzbekistan watched its ethnic compatriots massacred and at one point worried, with its neighbor Tajikistan, about a Taliban invasion of Central Asia. Even now some Taliban elements operate outside their normal range in northern Afghanistan. They could hardly succeed militarily, but could their warped vision of jihad--which primarily means interior spiritual struggle--have an influence the Tajiks and Uzbeks cannot control?
And India--at last. They have already felt the lash of the extremist whip wielded by Islamist militants bred in Pakistan. Witness Mumbai, witness infiltrations across the Line of Control in Kashmir. Of all the countries Afghanistan and Pakistan border, only China remains out of this, largely thanks to the spectacular wall of the Karakoram that guards its border with Pakistan, and the puny and remote fragment of border it shares with Afghanistan at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor.
So, a grand arc of countries, from Iran in the west, through Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and probably including even Russia in the north, through India in the east have interests in this conflict. Pakistan, of course, would like to keep it to themselves. That will not happen. And what better way to say that loudly and clearly in the language of diplomacy than by having the Indian prime minister to the first state dinner at a White House that clearly does not plan to give a lot of state dinners, if their first year says anything. Gordon Brown, get over it. Pakistan, take notice. We have other games to play than yours.
We can, of course, hide behind claims of all the other matters we have to discuss with the Indians, which of course we do. But if you think Singh and Obama didn't discuss the geopolitics beyond India's western and northern borders, think again. And if you don't think the Indians would love to have a role in humbling Pakistan in the region, then you really need to read up on your history. And if you think Obama will lose sleep worrying about what the Pakistanis will make of the visit, the dinner, and the timing, forget it. I'll bet he'll split his time the next few days among the West Point speech, enjoying Camp David or wherever he plans to spend Thanksgiving with his family, and getting in a couple rounds of golf. Pakistanis? Not on the agenda this week. Maybe next week...