For all their differences and minor jealousies it's heart-warming to see the two great self-respecting republics of India and Pakistan agreed at least on one particular: their furious desire to worm themselves into the good graces of the United States.
Balancing the scales between a willing Pakistan--let no one accuse Pakistan of ever being unwilling--and a cantankerous India, that is when India rode the high horse of moral rearmament, was tricky enough. How much trickier when both parties are almost wrestling the US to the ground in order to plant their favor upon it. Spare a thought for the embarrassment of riches on America's hands.
When the Twin Towers of New York, hit by the alleged fury of Al Qaeda, came tumbling to the ground, both India and Pakistan tried to beat each other to the draw to win American favor.
Without bothering about terms and conditions, Pakistan quickly said yes when Colin Powell called (in these parts saying yes and not haggling over details being called old-world chivalry). India too was quick off the mark and even before anyone had raised the subject was offering all kinds of assistance, including the use of military bases, to the US.
Geography dictated America's choice. As the US got ready to make Afghanistan safe for democracy--by first razing everything to the ground, the same process that we are seeing at work in Iraq--contiguity to Afghanistan is what it wanted, something which in the best measure only Pakistan could provide. India's chagrin at its advances being ignored (not rejected) should not be hard to imagine. Hell hath no fury--you get the picture.
The US is facing a much trickier situation in Iraq, the occupation and policing of Iraq proving far more difficult than anyone around Secretary Rumsfeld's war table had envisioned. So difficult in fact that the number one problem before the US right now is not to undermine the ayatollahs, contain North Korea's nuclear program or discover weapons of mass destruction. All these can wait. The most urgent problem is recruiting soldiers for hire, mercenaries who can do its dirty work in Iraq. Thus freeing the US military from a task beginning to tax its fortitude and resolve.
Colin Powell has gone to the extent of asking Bangladesh for hired soldiery, the US capable of any stooping in a jam. The two great republics of India and Pakistan have left few doubts about where they stand. It is not just that they are willing; they seem desperate to be taken on board.
Pakistan's soldier-president being under no obligation to consult anyone--this being the beauty of one-man rule--has said in no uncertain terms that Pakistan was ready to send troops, for which read mercenaries, to Iraq. His only condition is the UN flag or the auspices of the OIC or the Gulf Cooperation Council. In other words, he is not objecting to the thing in principle. The willingness part is thus settled. He just wants the proper fig leaf.
India's position is not much different. Through winks and nods the BJP government has signified its readiness to perform guard duty in Iraq. In this it has the support of big business which thinks that with troops in Iraq, India's chances of winning fat 'reconstruction' contracts would improve. But there is stiff domestic opposition to the idea of pandering to American wishes. Since the Indian government lacks the advantage of Pakistan's soldier-president who has to consult only his own wishes, a decision on this issue appears to be stalled.
However, when it comes to bartering individual or national honor, the key thing is the initial willingness. Once that is secured, only the details remain to be sorted out. In other words, once you say yes, the rest is negotiable.
This summer then there should be no spectacle more fascinating than our two republics looking silly on the question of Iraq. Here's the whole world saying the Americans have got themselves into a quagmire and a mess. And here India and Pakistan, fretting to beat each other at the game, and ignoring every aspect of honor or long-term interest, are itching to fling themselves into the same mud. Courting universal ignominy for a stash of dollars: more than being impressed, even our American friends are likely to be bemused.
Far from smarting at Indian competition, Pakistan should feel happy it has someone to give it company. All the more so when who should be giving it company but high-minded India. Trafficking in the same goods, vying for the same favors, walking up and down the same promenade. Welcome to the club.
Meanwhile of course, the Camp David spectacle is behind us. Ah, what to make of it. Our talent for selling ourselves cheap is by now so well established that it's no use crying. Three billion dollars over five years--which comes to about $600 million a year, divided equally between military and economic lollipops. This is such a damp squib, such an anti-climax to the pre-Camp David hype and hoopla, that even Pakistani officialdom has been reduced to incoherent muttering if not embarrassed silence.
Central Command itself--that is, where the gods reside-- has revealed (in a report carried briefly on its website but then quickly withdrawn when it was threatening to turn into a scandal) that the economic loss to Pakistan for carrying America's bags in Afghanistan came to roughly $10 billion. Far from getting anywhere near that figure, Pakistan's soldier-president has been rewarded with another bag of peanuts. But he got the visit to Camp David, didn't he? Lunch and a bit of a chat at the US president's private mountain retreat. Wow, what an honor. And then to be extolled by the US president for "brave leadership".
The story line never varies. Pakistani leaders, right from the Republic's infancy, have always fallen for morsels of comfort from the US, small certificates of approval which very briefly puff up their insecure egos. Two years ago, remember, when America was still bombing Afghanistan, General Musharraf was almost lionized when he visited New York. Soon thereafter when the Taliban melted away and the pounding of Afghanistan stopped, much of that enthusiasm evaporated. A brief moment in the sun soon gone.
Not that Musharraf's usefulness is over. By God, what sentry duty, what yeoman service, the Pakistani military is performing along the Afghan border. The American military command has only to murmur something and a loud clicking of heels can be heard all across the mountains. But aren't we getting paid for our pains and our smart snapping to attention?
We are but, in truth, not much. Our load is heavy, our recompense small. Actually, for no real fault of the Americans because right at the beginning Pakistan's military rulers surrendered whatever leverage they could have exercised.
Leverage comes from a gift deferred or a gift left hanging in anticipation. It is the prospect of what you can give that defines your worth and sets a price on your expected cooperation. But when the gift - in this case, Pakistani assistance - is delivered without any questions asked, precious little leverage remains.
But perhaps the whole point of such excursions as the visit to Camp David has more to do with form than substance--with symbolism rather than tangible benefits. Many Third World leaders feel themselves blessed when they get a pat from an American president, feeling their standing at home enhanced.
It never works like this and when storm waters rise no amount of American backslapping is enough by itself to rescue a leader in trouble. But Pakistani leaders, prey to infantile notions, have always felt otherwise and if Musharraf is proving to be no exception, if he feels washed and revivified by his helicopter flight to Camp David, who's to blame him?
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