Adm. Robert Willard (photo: WBUR)

A Pentagon commander announced a few days ago that the US has special forces teams in Bangladesh, Nepal, Maldives, Sri Lanka and, more significantly, India.

BBC News reports there are teams currently “deployed to help India with their counter-terrorism” operations, according to US Pacific Command Commander Admiral Robert Willard.

Willard says the US and India are working to “contain” a Pakistan-based militant group known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, that is believed to be responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

The development is not surprising. If one looks at US State Embassy cables released by WikiLeaks, there are details in the cables that show US interest in providing “assistance” to South Asian countries, like India, so that militant groups, such as LeT can be neutralized.

During a meeting on December 8, 2009, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake spoke to Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa about “contributing to US-led coalition operations in Afghanistan.” This seemed like something that would be too “politically sensitive during the current election season in Sri Lanka.” But, Rajapaksa suggested an alternative:

…[A] possible alternative for Sri Lanka might be to provide training assistance to Afghan security forces under the auspices of a non-governmental organization or private company. He recalled a local precedent for this approach, dating back to 1985-1986 when a South Africa-based company had provided security assistance to Sri Lanka in the early years of the war with the [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eela]. He said the company had provided military and security experts from a host of countries, including the United Kingdom, other Commonwealth nations, and even some Russians. For four or five years, the company was based in Jaffna and had trained Sri Lankan pilots and taught infantry tactics, including close quarters combat skills. He said that while the South African company had not participated in combat operations, it had closely monitored Sri Lankan military operations, assisting in de-briefing patrols and conducting after action reviews…

…A/S Blake warned that Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), which has used Nepal and Bangladesh as staging posts to attack India, could next turn to Sri Lanka. Rajapaksa related that the GSL had arrested two men transiting Sri Lanka to Nepal based on information provided by India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The GSL has since turned them over to RAW. Rajapaksa noted that the GSL has assigned separate officers to watch for extremists. A/S Blake suggested that the GSL exchange further information about LTTE networks with U.S. counter-terrorism experts… [emphasis added]

On December 17, an ambassador contacted the Pakistani High Commissioner Shahid Malik. That ambassador, probably Cameron Munter, the US ambassador to Pakistan, “pressed for Pakistani government action to convict suspects implicated in the 2008 Mumbai attacks; action against suspected Mumbai mastermind and LeT supremo Hafez Saeed; and dismantling of LeT infrastructure.”

On the dismantling of LeT infrastructure:

…the Ambassador expressed appreciation for GOP action against terror in FATA and South Waziristan as a promising start. Listing al-Qaeda, LeT, and the Taliban by name, Malik said that all these groups are inter-related and inter-connected to elements that traverse the Af-Pak border. He stated the Pakistani army is “proceeding in a systematic way” to go after these and other “bad actors” who are spread across Pakistan. He offered that special courts have been set up to investigate and prosecute such elements…

Addressing the issue of peace between India and Pakistan is critical to the US, especially if the military intends to seriously get rid of “safe havens” for terrorists in Pakistan.

Indian Ministry of External Affairs Joint Secretary for Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran Affairs Y.K.Sinha met with US ambassador Tim Roemer. Roemer, a former Indiana congressman, reported in a cable marked “confidential”:

…”Composite Dialogue” with Pakistan is “paused” and will not resume until Pakistan takes “credible and verifiable” measures against terror directed at India. “We have no benchmarks” for resumption, Sinha stated, adding that improvement in bilateral ties is not dependent on a single measure such as Pakistani action against Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) supremo Hafez Saeed. Sinha stated he is “convinced that LeT is a creature of the ISI and armed by the ISI.” He recounted that Indian Foreign Minister Krishna asked Pakistani FM Qureshi during an impromptu encounter at Karzai’s inauguration lunch about constant delays and adjournments in the trial of alleged Mumbai attack conspirators. Qureshi replied that the Pakistani government can not interfere in Pakistan’s judicial process. Sinha cited this reply as proof that Pakistan is not serious about bringing Mumbai conspirators to justice “because the Pakistanis constantly interfere in the judicial process when it suits them to do so.” He delivered a bleak long-term prognosis for India-Pakistan relations. “Call me a cynic,” Sinha sighed, “but even if India were to lop off Kashmir and hand it on a platter to Pakistan, they would still find a reason to make trouble for us.”… [emphasis added]

Saeed was set free by Pakistan in October 2009. Saeed, according to a report in The Hindu in January, was “attracting thousands of people” in Pakistan as he criss-crossed “the country at the head of a radical road-show targeting India and calling for ‘jihad.’” People were calling him a “hero.” And, during his tour, he said, “He wanted to send a message to India, America and NATO forces that the defense of Pakistan was his main priority.”

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Here we see a common theme: extremists are emboldened by the presence of US military forces and the people who the US claims to be helping coalesce around these leaders because they do not like having US forces in their country.

Admiral Willard told a Congressional hearing recently, “We are working very closely with India with regard to their counter-terrorism capabilities and in particular on the maritime domain but also government to government, not necessarily department of defense but other agencies assisting them in terms of their internal counter-terror and counterinsurgency challenges.”

Willard calls the special forces “assist teams.” That’s the euphemism for the teams that are involved in “overseas contingency operations,” not war.

As with many military operations these days, it is a delicate balancing act for diplomats. The forces are not “stationed in India.” However, according to the US embassy in India and India’s Defense Ministry, a US 25th infantry division is there to hold an “exercise with Indian forces.”

The world largely regards the war in Afghanistan as a quagmire. It is something a large majority of Americans want brought to end. Unfortunately, Pentagon commanders insist on continuing the war and President Barack Obama is likely to go along with there commitment to perpetuating the war.

Working to aid India in its efforts to go after terrorists in Pakistan is likely to produce another quagmire. “Terrorism” against India all stems from a conflict that goes all the way back to 1947 when British India was partitioned.

When diplomatic cables on Pakistan were released as the “Pakistan Papers,” I interviewed Raza Rumi, a writer based in Lahore, Pakistan. He said that India greatly constrains what the US is able to do in Pakistan.

The efforts of the Americans in fighting the Taliban have not been helped by this constraint. The reason that the Afghan Taliban are now in a strong bargaining position and Pakistan is basically behind them and willing to find a solution for the US exit, provides that Pakistan gets seat at the policy table and gets something in return for it’s security against India. This now in turn conflicts with the Indian expansionism that has also been ongoing for the last decade or so. Because traditionally, India thinks that Afghanistan has been a historical part of the Indian sub-continent—not formally but through all the trade, culture and commerce ties—and it feels that it needs to have influence there. And, also, don’t forget that Afghanistan is at the gateway of the energy rich Central Asian republics, which can serve the growing needs of India as a regional power like China.

Therefore, I think that the issue is rather complicated and unfortunately, though the US has tried to mediate, it does not have the same leverage with India that it does with Pakistan. India has basically not paid much heed to US advice and hence the stalemated imbroglio continues on this issue…

…This issue is so deep and so huge that it is often ignored in the global policy debates on the War on Terror and most assessments either bypass or underplay this issue. The Afghanistan situation cannot be viewed in isolation of the existing tensions within South Asia, especially between Pakistan and India. It has turned into a subset of the regional conflict because there is a proxy war of sorts going on between Indian and Pakistani military machines in Afghanistan.

Just like Iraq, Afghanistan is a proxy war. Proxy wars inevitably prolong military conflicts. The ability to address the issue of proxy war while advancing national interests at the same time is next to impossible.

For a country embroiled in a global war on terrorism more than a decade now, the expansion of efforts to assist these countries is a new stage in fighting the war in Afghanistan. It guarantees blood and treasure will continue to be spent in large proportions. And, it makes the possibility of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2014 even less likely.