CAP report revives focus on India-Pakistan relationship

November 18, 2008













Of all the reports I have read recently about what the United States should do about Pakistan, none so forcefully puts it in the context of its relationship with India as this latest study by the Center for American Progress (see the full pdf document here).

It’s worth reading not least because the think tank is expected to play an influential role in shaping the policies of President-elect Barack Obama. “Come January, perhaps none will be more piped into the executive branch than the 5-year-old Center for American Progress,” according to

Add to that that the fact that under the Republican administration India shook off its association with Pakistan to become a strategic partner of the United States in its own right, and the report starts looking like a radical shift in policy. Under the administration of President George W. Bush, India worked to   “de-hyphenate” its relationship with Pakistan, while building a partnership with the United States that culminated in the U.S.-India nuclear deal. From the U.S. point of view, it won an ally that could be used to contain China.  Now it looks like the hyphen is making a comeback.

The idea that India needs to be involved in a regional solution to the problems posed by Pakistan and Afghanistan has been around for a while, and Obama himself has said that the United States should try to help resolve the Kashmir dispute. But this report is remarkably forthright in spelling out why.

“Afghanistan, India and Pakistan are inextricably linked, and U.S. policy must be formulated accordingly,” it says. “Any regional approach must address Pakistan’s security concerns with India, specifically related to Kashmir and Afghanistan.”

This argument is fundamental, since it holds that the cause of instability in Afghanistan is in Pakistan, and that Pakistan in turn will never fully turn its back on Islamist militants as long as it believes it might need them to counter India.


















The report says that while the United States sees al Qaeda and the Taliban as immediate threats to both U.S. and Pakistani security, the Pakistani military continues to focus on India as its ”overarching priority”. (It has done so since Pakistan was created in 1947, and perhaps even more so since 1971, when Pakistan was divided in two, when Bangladesh, then East Pakistan, won independence with military help from India.) ”The Pakistani military’s overriding security concern since the country’s inception has been the perceived existential threat from neighbouring India,” it says.

It argues that under U.S. pressure following 9/11, the Pakistani security establishment went after al Qaeda. But facing growing Indian influence in Afghanistan, it left other Islamist militant groups alone. These included Kashmiri groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Afghan Taliban. ”The Pakistan military’s fear of an encroaching India, an Indian-leaning Afghanistan and increased instability in Afghanistan convinced many in the Pakistani military establishment that they needed to maintain the Afghan Taliban and Kashmiri groups to hedge their bets. This thinking continues today.”

The report gives few specifics on how it believes the Kashmir dispute can be resolved, other than to say that the United States should encourage the current peace process between India and Pakistan and ”promote increased dialogue on Kashmir”.  

But to read it, you are left wondering whether the authors realise the extent to which they are overturning U.S. policy over the last eight years. Not only do they resurrect the link between India and Pakistan, but they also write of the need to broaden and deepen the United States’ strategic relationship with Pakistan just when India had got used to being the favoured strategic friend in the region.

They also argue that the United States should consult more closely with China on Pakistan — likely to touch a raw nerve in India which has long been sensitive about China’s close ties with Pakistan.  And they say that India’s much-prized nuclear deal “if not handled adroitly, has the potential to destabilise the nuclear balance in South Asia and further compound Pakistani fears of being overpowered by their neighbours”. 

Does this herald a radical rethink in U.S. policy that will thrust Kashmir back into centre-stage, while in some ways diminishing India (in Indian eyes) by stressing its relationship with Pakistan? Or will the “change you can believe in” founder on the reality of managing U.S. strategy in Asia — including not just tackling Afghanistan and Pakistan but also dealing with India and China?

(Reuters photos: File photo of the Taj Mahal; bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad)


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