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The US, India and Pakistan

12 November, 2010

By Shafqat Mahmood


Some rituals are particularly meaningless. The US ambassador is "summoned" to the Foreign Office to be told of Pakistan`s unhappiness at American support for India`s Security Council bid. Both sides know of the futility of this routine, but it has to be gone through, and it is.

We can make much of what happened during President Obama`s visit to India, and we are doing that. The politicians and the "commentariat" have taken umbrage particularly on the Security Council question. While it is unlikely to happen soon, it is something that is exercising us the most.

At one level, it is indeed a failure of Pakistani diplomacy that we have not been able to leverage our position in the Afghan theatre to stop the US from publicly supporting India`s bid for global-power status. But, on another plane, the so-called American tilt is a simple recognition of India`s growing international importance, and there is not much Pakistan can do about it.

While fully within our rights to ritually protest some of the outcomes, we have no choice but to understand the games being played for global supremacy, and where India and Pakistan fit into these. If we go beyond emotions and correctly analyse the dynamics, we can still leverage our strategic position to our advantage.

A bit of history. For a long time, Pakistan was successful in twinning India by constantly getting into shouting matches with it internationally. India fell into this trap again and again, and the two countries became a single-issue, Kashmir-related, global partnership.

This prompted global powers to seek a degree of balance in their relationship between the two. This was a major success for Pakistan because its tactics nullified the huge disparity in size and population that always made India a weightier international presence.

Other factors helped too. Indian economy was a virtually closed shop, and foreign investment was actually discouraged. This did not make India a particularly interesting place for foreign businesses. And in the climate of the Cold War, India pushed non-alignment. This translated into a close relationship with the-then Soviet Union, a prospect not liked by the West.

All of that has now changed. India`s growing economy, and a large middle class with a huge purchasing power, has become a mouth-watering prospect for Western multinationals. India has also created a reasonably good investment climate, prompting foreign companies to stake out a presence in the Indian market. Close economic ties is a potent bond and India is cognisant of it.

On the security front too, India has been able to leverage its growing military power as a possible bulwark against Chinese dominance of the region. Although there is no comparison between the two, with China`s economic and military power vastly superior to India`s. But, for a West increasingly fearful of China, there is little choice but to build India up as a possible counterweight.

It should therefore come as no surprise that successive American presidents have sought to build a very close relationship with India. If the rhetoric used by Clinton, Bush and Obama in visits spread out over a ten-year period is compared, there is very little difference in style or substance. It is a recognition, that the US sees India as a major Asian nation whose values and security perspectives are closely proximate to its own.

While the US and India are tangoing together, where does Pakistan fit in? It has an important strategic value for the US, but within a narrow beam. The economic relationship between the two, while very important to Pakistan, does not have a major bearing for American businesses. Not only are we a smaller market, doing business here has serious security hurdles.

On the global strategic front too, we have our own priorities not in sync with the Americans. For example, Pakistan has a close relationship with China and sees it as a major security partner. This rules out any possible role that the US security interests may have for Pakistan vis-a-vis China. Even on Iran, which the US is close to taking on militarily, Pakistan is unlikely to stand by it, despite Shah Mahmood Qureshi`s intemperate remarks about Iran`s nuclear programme.

If this is the situation, why does the US continue to engage with Pakistan and support it with aid and assistance? Keeping aside whatever prejudices we have, we must recognise that without American help we would have serious problems in getting IMF and World Bank assistance. And direct US aid has been very helpful too, especially on the military side.

The obvious reason for this support is Afghanistan, but there is more to it. On the Afghan front, we keep a vital supply open and have played some role in keeping the militants in check on our side. The Americans want us to do more, but recognise that without Pakistan`s help their troubles in Afghanistan would be much greater. Pakistan also has an emerging role in Afghanistan where it can play an important part in facilitating dialogue with the Taliban.

While all of these issues are important, on a broader level the US worries about Pakistan`s nuclear programme and the danger of it falling into radical hands in case of serious state failure. One can argue that this theory has Israeli sponsorship and that there is no such danger but, whatever the impetus, it is something that concerns the Americans.

According to conspiracy theories, the Americans are looking for an opportunity to militarily take control of Pakistan`s nuclear programme. This is what the US has publicly stated, but only in case of serious state failure. In the meantime, it is visibly trying to bolster the Pakistani military and the state to ensure that radicals get nowhere near the Bomb.

Besides the Bomb, the US and the West have other concerns too, which keep them focused on Pakistan. They deeply worry about the growth of radicalism in Pakistan. This is more than just an intellectual question for them, because they seriously fear attacks on their soil from Pakistan-based radicals. The Faisal Shehzad episode just added another piece of evidence to this concern. And add to this the fact that the US believes Al Qaeda and its leadership are ensconced in the Pak-Afghan tribal regions.

A quick narration of factors that keep the US interested in Pakistan show a remarkable degree of negative trigger points. While India is an economic partner, Pakistan`s economy needs to be given constant transfusions. While India is a strategic ally against China, Pakistan is not, but can be cajoled into cooperating in Afghanistan. There is no terror threat from India, but there is from elements in Pakistan.

Not a pretty picture. But instead wringing our hands at what Obama has done in India, we need to deeply analyse our assets and liabilities and then work hard at improving the positives. There is still space to further our economic and security interests, provided we get our domestic act together. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a whole new can of worms.

 

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