In response to a request from Islamabad, NATO decided to set up 'a major strategic airlift' relief operation, which a statement by the NATO Secretary General in Brussels described as 'something unprecedented in NATO's history.'
NATO will deploy a battalion of engineers with equipment, will add a number of helicopters to the 40 already in operation from its member countries, and will also send 'deployable headquarters' that will help the United Nations with 'planning, command and control and logistics' for the relief efforts.
The scope of NATO's involvement is such that the alliance is virtually assuming the role of the overall coordinator of external assistance from the international community, including the UN, reaching the earthquake-affected regions in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
The dramatic developments have indeed taken by surprise the commentators in the region who were just about sitting down to meditate whether or not an earthquake of such magnitude, and the horrendous destruction in its wake, could have a salutary effect on the climate of India-Pakistan relations.
The deployment of Western military assets would have normally evoked strong public reaction within Pakistan. In the normal course, NATO would have agonised over its role in getting involved in yet another 'out of region' operation not quite falling within the alliance's normal range of activities.
Both Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and NATO have evidently seized the opportunity to hasten to get into something that suited both.
Since Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's visit to the NATO headquarters in Brussels last year, the two sides have been groping for constructive engagement. Both sides could foresee NATO's enlarged role in Afghanistan including in the Afghan-Pak border regions.
At a meeting with the Deputy Secretary General of NATO Minuto Rizzo in Islamabad in March, Prime Minister Aziz lauded NATO's role in Afghanistan and stressed that Pakistan sought 'cooperation and good relations with NATO.'
Ambassador Rizzo, on his part, widened the scope of discussion by responding that his path-breaking visit to Pakistan formed a part of the on-going process 'to define a new role for NATO after the Cold War.' He said NATO hoped to explore avenues of cooperation with Pakistan, as 'NATO wants to work as partners in promoting peace.'
The NATO forces' deployment in a region that provides sanctuaries to Kashmiri militants arouses interest. The militants' 'infrastructure' is reportedly in serious disrepair. How can this 'infrastructure' be rebuilt when the terrain is swarming with the 'international community' including highly observant NATO soldiers? This is a pertinent question that Musharraf can be expected to ask sooner rather than later for doubting any continued Indian talk of the militants getting support from Pakistan.
On the other hand, an interesting possibility arises -- the international community acting as watchdog 'breaking mechanism' against any surreptitious Pakistani attempt to resuscitate the militant infrastructure. The stationing of 'neutral observers' along the LOC was something that Pakistan had long argued for, but India was sceptical.
After all, Pakistan sustained the myth all through the Afghan jihad (1992-98) that no mujahideen operations were undertaken from its soil, despite the border crossings having been under United Nations observation.
Thus, the deployment of NATO forces in Kashmir at Pakistan's unilateral request carries much symbolism if the post-earthquake dealings between Pakistan and NATO proceed to move on to an institutionalised level of partnership in 'promoting peace' (to quote Ambassador Rizzo) -- which is entirely conceivable as things stand today. And there are two directions of evolution that call for discussion -- military evolution and political evolution.
Both the Pakistani armed forces and NATO are getting a unique opportunity to get to know each other and to get used to each other over the coming months. Such protracted interaction is bound to create a new dynamic ('synergy' in military jargon) in Pakistan-NATO military cooperation.
Equally so, in political terms, it is utterly fascinating that this 'synergy' is developing with the active encouragement of the United States. Pentagon has just announced that one or more battalions of US troops would be deployed in Pakistan for the relief effort. US Navy Rear Admiral, Michael A LeFever, commander of the US relief effort in Pakistan stressed that the American troops were to be deployed in Pakistan 'for the long haul' at the request of Islamabad.
From India's point of view, of course, this is the first time that NATO forces come to its border region. India had close to four years to get used to NATO's presence within earshot of its borders -- in Afghanistan. Now a new threshold of 'acquaintance' is reached. (Following the recent visit to India, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov had been quoted in the Russian press as claiming that 'the Indian armed forces have agreed to hold anti-terrorism exercises, involving commandos from several NATO countries, Russia and India.')
There are wider implications. The experience in Pakistan would help dispel the reservations on the part of some NATO member countries (France, Germany, Spain in particular) about NATO's enlarged role in Afghanistan. Possibly, the US is creating a fait accompli for NATO in this regard by 'acclimatising' the alliance to the rugged Afghan-border regions that are the fabled haunts of the resurgent Taliban and the elusive Al Qaeda leadership.
After the stint in POK, NATO might become more receptive to the US idea that the forces under Operation Enduring Freedom and NATO contingents deployed in Afghanistan should merge as a single force under a unified command and be made responsible for anti-insurgency operations.
Curiously, therefore, Pakistan is becoming for the US an even more active ally in Afghanistan in the period ahead. What does Pakistan get in return? Indeed, Pakistan would have noted that NATO's long-term military occupation of Afghanistan would soon be a fact of life. No one could stop the process. Pakistan could hope that with NATO's presence in the Afghan border regions, incrementally, a greater clarity might now become available for the Durand Line.
Second, Islamabad would expect that the peace dividend included an accommodation of Pakistani interests in the new set-up in Kabul. This would mean a proportionate representation for Pashtun interests (elements well-disposed toward Pakistan) in the power structure in Kabul, and also a further whittling down of the influence wielded by (pro-India) elements known to be unacceptable to Pakistan.
Third, Pakistan is not unaware of the US interest in using Afghanistan as the stepping stone for expanding its influence in the Central Asian region. The American ambassador to NATO recently described that Afghanistan will remain NATO's 'most important mission for the foreseeable future' -- and, furthermore, that 'NATO must be the place where we talk about all the issues affecting our future -- the Middle East, Iraq, North Korea, China, Iran, just to name a few.'
Certainly, Musharraf would want to be part of the bandwagon heading toward any such exciting journey to a brave new world in the 21st century, rather than be left behind on the edges of South Asia as an occasional ally in a controversial 'war on terror.'
Musharraf's (and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's) recent overtures to Israel; NATO's expanding partnerships in the Mediterranean region (mostly Arab countries); NATO's own deepening ties with Israel; the creation of the NATO Response Force by next spring with the capability to meet threats 'wherever and whenever they may arise'; and, of course, Washington's overarching choice of a better-equipped, better-funded and more flexible NATO as one of its central foreign policy goals in the near-term -- these form essential parts of the emerging regional security architecture stretching from the Levant to 'Muslim Central Asia.'
Fortuitously, the earthquake in Kashmir has speeded up the process of forging a very crucial segment of the chain -- formalised partnership links between NATO and Pakistan.
The writer is a former Indian diplomat.