U.S. policy confusion on Pakistan and India

January 24, 2010

jinnah flagWhat is the U.S. policy towards Pakistan and India, and in particular over how to deal with their rivalry over Afghanistan which complicates U.S. efforts to bring stability there? I’ve been trying to find an answer for weeks now amid a raft of contradictory signals and statements coming from different U.S. officials.

First we had the leaked report by General Stanley McChrystal in September suggesting the issue should be handled with caution given Pakistani sensitivities about a big rise in India’s presence in Afghanistan following the fall of the Pakistani-backed Taliban in 2001.

“Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment,” it said. “In addition the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian. While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter-measures in Afghanistan or India.”

Then we had a series of reports, most recently here, suggesting Washington might welcome a bigger role for India in Afghanistan – precisely the kind of development that would exacerbate tensions with Pakistan given the current sour mood between New Delhi and Islamabad.

U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke toured the region saying President Barack Obama’s administration would welcome better relations between India and Pakistan. But then he was followed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates who, if anything, actually worsened tensions between the two by saying that India might retaliate in the event of a another big attack like the Nov. 2008 assault on Mumbai.

Gates made a similar comment towards the end of last year, when he said al Qaeda and its Islamist allies might try to use an attack to provoke a conflict between Pakistan and India. The problem this time around was the context. Saying this in Washington is one thing; saying it in India is quite different. Pakistan had already been jumpy about Indian intentions after its army chief said the military should be prepared to fight a two-front war against both China and Pakistan. Indian analysts describe those remarks, made at a closed-door seminar, as an aspirational view of the need for military preparedness, rather than any kind of immediate threat; but they went down badly in Pakistan and therefore coloured the way Gates’ remarks were interpreted.

You have to wonder whether Gates had been properly briefed about the context when he talked about Indian losing patience in the event of another big attack, or indeed why someone with such long experience of the region would make what appeared to be a diplomatic gaffe shortly before flying into Pakistan to try to win support there.  Did he, to borrow a word from the now U.S. Secretary of State, ”misspoke”?

 Juan Cole, who has generally been supportive of the Obama administration, was unforgiving, writing on his blog Informed Comment that its policies in Afghanistan and Pakistan were in disarray:

“Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates’s trip to Pakistan this weekend has in many ways been public relations disaster, and I think it is fair to say that he came away empty-handed with regard to his chief policy goals in Islamabad. Getting Pakistan right is key to President Barack Obama’s policy of escalating the Afghanistan War, and judging by Gates’s visit to Islamabad, Obama is in worse shape on the AfPak front than he is even in Massachusetts. Since he has bet so heavily on Afghanistan and Pakistan, this rocky road could be momentous for his presidency.”

Meanwhile Britain is hosting a conference on Afghanistan this week aiming to flesh out the timetable set by Obama for drawing down troops by 2011 and to convince regional players to cooperate rather than compete over a country which has long been a battleground for proxy wars. But as I wrote in this analysis, anything that might now be achieved in terms of easing tensions between India and Pakistan is likely to come too little, too late to deliver policy results in time for the 2011 deadline.

According to Steve Coll at the New America Foundation, who I quoted in the analysis, Washington’s need to achieve results in Afghanistan by 2011 is at odds with the longer-term clock followed by India and Pakistan. ”My sense is that the administration feels stymied by India’s continued insistence that it does not want any outside help and the frustratingly slow pace by which India and Pakistan are trying (to find a way back to negotiations),” he said. ”The U.S. doesn’t seem to be able to construct a breakthrough.”

The tensions between India and Pakistan complicate the current situation by undermining U.S. efforts to convince the Pakistan Army to turn on Afghan Taliban militants which it may eventually need to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.  Pakistan has also kept the bulk of its forces on the Indian border, limiting its capacity to mobilise troops to fight militants on the Afghan border.  In the short to medium term, India and Pakistan are at odds over how far Taliban fighters should be brought into a process of reconciliation in Afghanistan. And in the long term, both could end up backing opposite sides in any renewed civil war between a weak government in Kabul and Taliban militants active in parts of the countryside. Then of course, both countries have nuclear weapons, so even without Afghanistan, it’s not a place where you would ever want tensions to escalate out of control.

So you would think that after a year in office, the U.S. administration would have a policy on how to deal with relations between India and Pakistan and their roles in Afghanistan. But I’m still looking for it.

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