Friday, October 22, 2010
Time to hit the pause button with United States
As the third round of the strategic dialogue between the US and Pakistan gets underway, it is clear that Washington is getting ready to signal its deeper and longer term commitment to Islamabad’s well-being. Pakistan is central to our security concerns— never mind the brave talk of Pakistan being a pinprick and China our main worry— but it also happens to be central to the US effort to prosecute its AfPak war. Perhaps the time has come for us to reassess what is often termed the strategic relationship between India and the United States.
To start with, the whole business of “strategic relationship” has become a bit overblown. As of now we have strategic ties with just about everyone—the US, EU, Russia, and even China. However, the true meaning of strategic relations would require, at the least, a significant identity of interests over an extended period of time—of the kind that, say, UK and the US have, or Japan and the US have developed since 1945. Just how we can have strategic ties with a country, which has been, and remains, the principal ally of our main adversary, defies intelligence.
This is not to argue that India should not have good, and even strategic, relations with the US. But we do need to be clear-headed about the terms of engagement and understand their evolution and changing context. For most of our modern history, the US has adopted a strategy of off-shore balancing of India through the use of proxies like Pakistan. The shift towards India in the 1990s has been significant, but tentative. If we continue to work at it, and the global situation so evolves, we may develop strategic ties, but for the moment, it remains a work in progress.
Today, while there is a desire in both countries to intensify the process of coming closer, the ground realities, and the bonds of America’s karma in the region are holding it back. It is apparent that much though it may desire it, the US cannot walk away from Afghanistan or Pakistan. If its commitment were truly directed towards assisting Pakistan’s counter-insurgency efforts against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, it would be fine. But it is not.
Since 2001, under a number of US programmes and its own funds, Pakistan has received maritime patrol aircraft, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles, artillery surveillance radars, self-propelled howitzers, a missile frigate.
The current US-Pakistan strategic dialogue will come up with a new five-year military aid package worth $2 billion. This is, of course, on top of the $6 billion in development aid and more than $8 billion in military reimbursements that Pakistan has already received between 2001 and 2010. Beginning this year, Pakistan will also begin receiving the $7.5 billion economic aid package approved by the US Congress last year. In addition, the US Central Intelligence Agency provides what one estimate says is some one-third of the budget of Pakistan’s ISI.
American assistance has freed funds for a larger shopping list from China and elsewhere which includes tanks, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, AWACS, fighter aircraft, submarines and nuclear technology. None of this has relevance to the Al Qaeda and Taliban; all of them have a relevance for India.
It is easy to understand why the United States is following the course it is in Pakistan. Softening up Islamabad is a key component of its strategy of defeating the Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance and shoring up the government of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan. The other component is the building up of the Afghan National Army. But as long as Pakistan continues to provide sanctuary to the Taliban, even while permitting NATO and the US to ferry supplies for the war in Afghanistan through its territory, the US needs to hold Pakistan close to itself.
Of course, in contrast to the past, the US is much more hard-headed about its relationship. But it cannot escape the logic of its situation. So, even as the US would like to restrict its aid to counter-insurgency items, it cannot but help providing Islamabad with weapons that are directed at India, because that is the only means through which it can retain the trust of the Pakistan Army, and the generals in Rawalpindi know this.
The limits to the ties between India and the US are most vividly brought out by the fallout of the David Coleman Headley revelations. It transpires that the US probably had information on his activities and did not tip off India.
Fair enough. The US was perhaps pursuing its vital national interests. It is entirely possible that at some time he was being controlled, or so they thought, by the CIA, which saw him as a possible means to get Osama bin Laden. For the record, of course, he was an important DEA source who had managed to establish links with the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba. So he was allowed to operate freely, till it became clear that he was going to hit Denmark and then, he was pulled in. The Mumbai thing did not seem to have mattered to the US. It was the possible danger to a NATO ally that counted. That’s what strategic relationships are all about—mutuality of outlook and obligations.
Since then, as this paper has extensively reported, Headley has revealed that the Mumbai operation had deep ISI links. He has named names, provided the dates and other information. But that, too, has not mattered to the US. It does not want to raise the issue that could profoundly unsettle its links with the Pakistan Army, the outfit which runs the ISI and effectively controls Pakistan.
There is a lot that brings India and the US together. Democracy and all that is one part of it, a growing distrust of China is another. But New Delhi would be mistaken if it thought that there was an identity of interests and mutuality of obligations between us right now. The quality of the Sino-US relationship is quite different from that between India and China. The two matter far more to each other, in contrast to their more secondary relationships with India.
The more important point to understand is that there is a great deal of potential in Indo-US relations, but that we are still some way from being able to realise that potential. There are subjective factors that prevent that realisation such as India’s inability to think through its longer range grand strategy, as well as the very real inequality of their status in relation to each other. And there are objective factors such as the current interplay of ties of our interlocutor, the US, with our adversaries, Pakistan and China.
In some future, if the Pakistan problem can be sorted out satisfactorily and Chinese behaviour becomes more problematic, perhaps a strategic relationship may actually develop. But nothing is foreordained. So for the present let us agree to be just good friends, and leave it at that.
Mail Today October 22, 2010