Pakistan test-fires cruise missile; strategic re-alignment on subcontinent?

Recent optimism on reducing tensions between India and Pakistan is tempered by Pakistan’s Aug. 10 test-firing of its first ground-launched nuclear-capable Cruise Missile Hatf VII Babur, with a range of 500 kilometers. The military said that with the “successful test, Pakistan has joined a select group of countries which have the capability to design and develop [a] cruise missile.”

The “terrain-hugging missile” has an advanced guidance system, a defence statement said while not mentioning the time or the location of the test. The military boasted the missile can avoid radar detection and penetrate un-detected through any hostile defensive systems.

The missile is believed to be a match for India’s Brahmos missile, developed in cooperation with Russia.

Pakistan did not inform India about the test, stating that an agreement just reached between the two countries on pre-notification of missile tests does not cover cruise missiles. “The agreement on pre-notification of ballistic missiles, which has been finalised but not yet signed in New Delhi, does not cover pre-notification of cruise missile tests,” a Foreign Ministry spokesman was quoted. (PTI, Aug. 11)

Significantly, the test comes days after Washington concluded an agreement to provide nuclear technology to New Delhi–which some have perceived as the start of a major geopolitical shift on the Subcontinent. In an analysis entitled “Is it the end of the US-Pak honeymoon?,” MV Kamath writes for India’s News Today:

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quick to call up Pakistan President Musharraff to inform him that no ‘secret nuclear agreement’ has been signed, that what has been agreed upon is strictly an effort to help India’s civilian nuclear power generation capacity and that, in any event, the deal was not aimed at Pakistan…

The United States is aware that the Pakistani Army cannot be taken for granted. It has its quota of extremists and fundamentalists and someone is needed to keep them in check. As far as the US is concerned Musharraff fills the bill. It is also aware that there are limits beyond which he cannot be pushed. Musharraff needs elbow room to keep terrorism in check. He knows – and Washington knows – that already there have been three attempts on his life.

At the same time Musharraff cannot ignore the fact that terrorism with its deep roots in Pakistan, has to be first contained and then eliminated. He has been on the job for some months now. In recent days some 300 suspects have been detained. Orders have gone to deport some 1600 odd aliens studying in Pakistan madarassahs which has already roused the ire of the Muttahida Majlis-o-Amal (MMA), the alliance of six religious parties in Pakistan which has charged Musharraff with putting the whole nation at state ‘only to save his life’.

After much dillydallying, Musharraff has appealed to ‘moderates’ to pray for ‘Pakistan’s deliverance from the menace of extremism’. But judging from continuing infiltration of terrorists into Jammu ? Kashmir, it is clear that the situation is beyond Musharraff’s hands to control.

Either he is playing a double game or he is frankly ineffectual… [A]s of now he is irreplaceable and apparently Washington believes that it must continue to play ball with him. But for how long? According to reports from Islamabad, Pakistan is frightened…

Islamambad must have known that nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The US may not – it possibly cannot – ditch Pakistan overnight, lest chaos overtake it. But the US has now discovered that it is India that matters most. One hears over and over again, of a ‘fundamental transformation’ in relation between the US and India. In his last days as Secretary of State, Colin Powell, in an introduction to a book on Indo-US relations spoke twice of ‘fundamental’ changes in ‘every dimension of our bilateral relationship’.

More recently, in an introduction to yet another publication on the same subject, the present Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaks about President Bush’s desire to ‘pursue his vision for a growing strategic partnership between our great democracies’.

Further she noted: ‘At a time when President Bush has made the spread of freedom his highest foreign policy priority, few tasks are more important than building the closest possible relationship between the United States and India’. According to her India is an ‘increasingly important partner for the United States’…

Surely these words are not said casually. Some commentators insist that just as the United States once used Pakistan against the Soviet Union and also as a conduit to China, the United States is now using its honeyed words to get India as a counterbalance to China. But it is well to remember that presently India is a power in its own right and is talking to Washington as an equal and not as a supplicant, as Pakistan was in the late forties…

And if India and the United States start working in tandem, it will, not only benefit both countries, but it will be a power that no one else can ever match. Just the knowledge of that simple fact should keep all contestants on their toes. Bush has realised it. Dull-witted as the left in India is, it also is bound to realise it, sooner or later.

This may a bit of wishful thinking on the part of a conservative Indian nationalist. But it also seems that Washington may be seeking a tactical tilt to India, implicitly (at least) playing on the mutual enemy of Islamic extremism to woo New Delhi away from Russia and Iran—and send an unsubtle message to Pakistan, perceived as an increasingly unreliable ally. But if the gambit only sparks further Pakistani bellicosity, it could backfire horribly.

See our last posts on the ongoing Indo-Pakistani crisis, Pakistan’s internal conflicts, and the frontline in Kashmir.