South Asia is entering into the end game of the Global War on Terror. The Bruce Riedel-Richard Holbrooke review to be completed soon is to chalk out the direction of the war into the Obama presidency. The legacy of the Bush years is that public opinion is now against an overly militarised approach. Recession in the United States would also drive that country to alter its stance, since war-making is considerably more expensive than aid programs. A new, more placatory, approach towards the Muslim world would also be required to defuse the disillusion of the people there with American actions and inaction. However, the military prong will continue to be in evidence for a while longer, as America's new strategy, relying on the surge of US troops diverted from Iraq, plays itself out.

Pakistan's role in all this has likely been negotiated by General Kayani during his visit to the US last month, where a meeting of minds took place between the new administration and its two allies in the region, Pakistan and Afghanistan, who are otherwise at odds with each other . The truce signed in Swat is indicative of Pakistan's approach to the conflict. It would like to distinguish between the Al Qaeda on one hand and the Taliban on the other. The expansion of the Global War On Terror (GWOT) into Pakistan through drone attacks has evoked opposition in the tribal areas of North West Frontier Province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and this is something that the Pakistani administration is keenly conscious of.

In return for distancing itself from its strategic terrorists assets directed against India, Pakistan would like to bring Kashmir to the table, no doubt. India is awaiting unfolding of the Obama strategy with some trepidation, especially with regard to Kashmir figuring in the context of an overall end game strategy. Its stance since the Mumbai attacks has understandably been to highlight Pakistani reliance on terror as a weapon. A drawdown in the GWOT could result in terrorist attention refocusing on Kashmir. Thus India hopes that the US stays militarily engaged till the defeat of the Taliban. This would also serve its interests in Afghanistan, since the Taliban would not be very amenable to India in case of their return into the power equations in Kabul.

The conservative-realist view is that Pakistan will continue to weaken, and this will prevent it from pursuing its perceived interests in Kashmir.

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South Asia is thus poised at an uncertain juncture, which the strategic review underway in Washington DC would help dispel as it is implemented over the next couple of years. Since India is going into elections-related hibernation over the next quarter, we can only be reactive until the next government assumes the reins by mid year. But political parties could well take positions on how we should respond to the American strategy, and this may embolden those elected to power to seize the moment.

The conservative-realist perspective

Thus far, India has been held back by the conservative-realist combination. The latest instance of this is in the revelations of the former Pakistani foreign minister Kasuri that Musharraf and Manmohan were very close to agreement over Kashmir in early 2007. The downturn to events in Pakistan and Indian hardliners dashed that initiative. The silver lining is that this precedence can be revisited. The next government - with high comfort levels from knowledge of having five years ahead to carry forward the initiative - can take up the issue from where it was left off without having to start afresh. This would be more easily done if the uncertainty over the longevity of the Zardari regime in power in Pakistan is resolved by then, given the avoidable trial of strength currently on there between Sharif and Zardari.

Presently the conservative-realist view is that Pakistan will continue to weaken, and this will prevent it from pursuing its perceived interests in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The hope is that military and political pressure by the US would degrade the challenge of the Taliban. In case the US requires assistance then, in provisioning military assistance, India's role and importance would get further buttressed, and this would have the indirect effect of further fencing in Pakistan's options.

This position, however, is based on flawed assumptions. One is that a failing Pakistan is in India's interests. Two is that the Taliban can be rolled back militarily. A mere contrast between the immense deployment in the easier terrain and against lesser opposition even at the peak in Kashmir and the formidable terrain and vast spaces and more militarized opposition astride the Durand Line should dispel the notion. Last is that Kashmir can be kept cauterised from the instability across the Line of Control.

Quite the opposite of all this is true. A weakening of the Pakistani state would lead to a relative strengthening of its opposition which comprises the Taliban and sympathetic elements in the state and the Army. Since only the Pakistani state and the Army can contain and roll back the Taliban, albeit with assistance from the US, to weaken it would be counter productive. This desirable outcome can only be brought about through a combination of political and military measures.

The US is interested in eliminating the Al Qaeda. Pakistan's objective is to reclaim spaces lost to the resurgent Taliban. This it can do by championing an end to operations against the Taliban in return for accommodating Taliban in post-Karzai power structures in Kabul. The Taliban for its part would require to promise not to entertain global terrorists now or in the future. Ceasing operations within its territory would defuse the nationalist blow-back that is strengthening the Taliban within Pakistan's borders. Therefore there is a strong likelihood of politics staging a comeback after a long eclipse by the military prong of grand strategy.

In this case, India would do well to rethink its approach. What are the strands of the alternative, liberal-rationalist approach?

The liberal-rationalist alternative

Nailing the perpetrators of the Mumbai attack requires India and Pakistan to be on the same side. This involves strengthening the Pakistani government rather than cornering it. Since the US cannot do without Pakistan, it is neither possible nor necessary to attempt to put a wedge between the two. Therefore, India should use the aegis of the Pakistani state to get to the organisers of the terrorist outrage. Secondly, India should welcome the politico-military strategy that is to be unveiled by the Obama administration. This could involve military restraint even in face of the next provocation. This would be a severe test but in the national interest statesmanship should trump short term political calculations. This our polity is quite capable of; with electioneering making rhetoric more aggressive.

Thirdly, Indian interests in Afghanistan would continue to be protected irrespective of the complexion of the regime there as any regime would need Indian assistance and expertise in rebuilding the country. The present apprehension that the Taliban would be averse to India owes to the two being on opposite sides of the current war. But in the war termination efforts India needs to reposition itself so as to be indispensable to the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Its over-identification with its erstwhile allies the Northern Alliance and northern ethnic groups could be realigned with deft diplomacy and tugging at purse strings. Fourthly, the relative calm in Kashmir should be seized on to progress negotiations predicated on greater autonomy for the state. This could have a parallel track later in getting Pakistan to acquiesce with India's political approach in line with people's aspirations. The aim would be defuse any ?pull? factor in Kashmir that could attract unwanted terrorist energies from across the Line of Control.

The strategy would require a strategic dialogue with Pakistan. This is inescapable if strategy is to originate in South Asia as against it being framed in Washington as at present. The two protagonist South Asian states got their independence in the middle of the last century, and it is about time that they seize control of their mutual and intertwined destiny. For that to eventuate, first the liberal-rationalists would require to prevail over the conservative-realists. It can be left to the electorate to decide on the merits of the two arguments.