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The day of the jackals

columns Updated: Aug 10, 2013 01:38 IST
Vladimir Putin

Putin may have used a sprat to irk the whale, but even so, the wails from Washington are underwhelming. Has Russia turned into America’s biggest bugbear? Not yet.

Recently, the number one bestseller on the New York Times’ fiction list was Washington-based thriller writer Daniel Silva’s The English Girl. This novel resurrects a familiar American adversary, the KGB. That red and well read menace of countless 1980s potboilers is suddenly cool again since there’s a new chill sending shivers down spines: the return of the Cold War.

The Beltway is bullish on the bear again. The return of the Russian threat has grizzled Cold Warriors more excited than former New York City Congressman and mayoral aspirant Anthony Weiner at the sight of a cellphone camera.

Since the Vladimir Putin regime granted a temporary visa to National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, the rhetoric’s been ratcheted up. American President Barack Obama cancelled a scheduled summit with Putin in Moscow next month. The US could skate past the Sochi Winter Olympics next year. These aren’t the Goodwill Games. Putin may have used a sprat to irk the whale, but even so, the wails from Washington are underwhelming. Has Russia turned into America’s biggest bugbear? Not yet.

That rude reminder came as the US closed nearly 20 embassies globally last week. It resulted from intercepted communications between al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and its Arabian Peninsula affiliate chieftain. The least surprising part of the revelations about the attacks was that al-Zawahiri’s messaging originated in Pakistan, though rumours that he has leased a mansion in Abbottabad are probably untrue.

Meanwhile, that country’s new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been invited for a bilateral meeting with Obama this fall. That will be Sharif’s first official return to Washington since 1999 when, on July 4, he was summoned to face fireworks from then US President Bill Clinton over the Kargil misadventure. Sharif was placed, almost literally, in the outhouse.

Now, 14 years later, Sharif is the comeback kid, with a political mandate. But that sort of capital will hardly pay the bills and he’ll want a few billions from the Obama administration to bolster the economy unless he can get founder Jeff Bezos to cough up another huge amount to add a second basket case to his shopping cart. Earnest US officials have explained to frustrated Indian interlocutors that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Not at all, the stakes are pretty high — there’s the American law that pays Pakistan $7.5 billion over five years. That expires in 2014 and curiously coincides with America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, leaving the Kabul government hanging, though hopefully not literally as was the case with former President Najibullah after Moscow’s departure from his country.

Afghanistan will pay the price of America’s 2014 drawdown. Appearing with secretary of state John Kerry in Islamabad, the Pakistan PM’s adviser on national security and foreign affairs Sartaj Aziz (who was foreign minister during the Kargil conflict), said, “I have reiterated Pakistan’s clear commitment to facilitating US withdrawal from Afghanistan.” You wonder if he said that with a straight face. Kerry, though, was trying to be funny when he said at another event, “I thought there was a great sense of humor when I walked out and I saw a line of fans down here. These blow the hot air around.” There were fewer fans in Lahore, where American diplomats had to be evacuated even as Lashkar-e-Taiba chief and 26/11 mastermind Hafiz Saeed was provided protection as he led prayers at Gaddafi Stadium.

We’ve already seen what’s blowing in the wind with an attack on India’s Jalalabad consulate and the cross-border killing of five jawans in Poonch.

During his recent visit to Pakistan, Kerry was at a meet and greet at the US Embassy in Islamabad and remarked, “I learned today that you have signs in front of the cafeteria that say, ‘Don’t feed the cats, don’t feed the mongoose, and don’t feed the jackals’.” Sometimes it’s wise to pay attention to signs, especially when they’re ominous.

Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years
The views expressed by the author are personal