India and Pakistan on the U.S. see-saw

March 26, 2010

wagah2Few who follow South Asia could miss the symbolism of two separate developments in the past week –  in one Pakistan was cosying up to the United States in a new “strategic dialogue”; in the other India was complaining to Washington about its failure to provide access to David Headley, the Chicago man accused of helping to plan the 2008 attack on Mumbai.

Ever since the London conference on Afghanistan in January signalled an exit strategy which could include reconciliation with the Taliban, it has been clear that Pakistan’s star has been rising in Washington while India’s has been falling. 

If the United States wants to force the Taliban to the negotiating table, it needs Pakistan’s help. And Pakistan has shown by arresting Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar amongst others that it intends to keep control of any negotiations. In return for its cooperation, it expects Washington’s help in securing Pakistan’s own interests, including through a scaling back of India’s involvement in Afghanistan.

By contrast, the relationship between India and the United States which blossomed under the Bush administration has been fading as Washington looks to China and Pakistan to help meet respectively its economic and security needs. An initial outpouring of sympathy and international support for India following the Mumbai attack  - which led to intense pressure on Pakistan to crack down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the assault – has dissipated over time.

Nowadays the mantra in Washington is that India and Pakistan must talk to each other to resolve their differences. Pakistan, after initially cracking down on the Lashkar-e-Taiba, eased the pressure on the group in the second part of 2009. India suspects the Lashkar-e-Taiba is not only active again but may have been involved in last month’s attack in Kabul which targeted Indian interests. If true, this would suggest that Lashkar-e-Taiba is acting in conformity with the interests of the Pakistan Army, which is deeply sensitive about India’s growing presence in Afghanistan following the fall of the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 2001.

To rewind briefly, it has always been unclear how far the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency could go in dismantling the Punjab-based militant group it once nurtured to fight India in Kashmir. While few doubt it could shut down the Lashkar-e-Taiba if it chose to do so, the risk has been that action against an organisation which has been scrupulous in avoiding attacks within Pakistan itself would shatter it into splinter groups which would make common cause with al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban. A raid on the Pakistan Army’s own headquarters last October highlighted just how vulnerable the country could be to an alliance between militants in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan and those based in its heartland Punjab province.

So the debate amongst analysts has been whether relative inaction against the Lashkar-e-Taiba has been driven by self-preservation or a desire on the part of the ISI to retain the group’s operational capacity to use it against India. Islamabad is convinced India’s own intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), is using Afghanistan as a base to destabilise Pakistan, particularly by funding separatists in its Baluchistan province.  Any evidence of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s involvement in the Kabul attack would therefore reinforce suspicions that the Pakistan Army is still using it as part of a proxy war between the two countries’ intelligence agencies. (Both countries deny the accusations levelled at each other’s intelligence agencies.)

 One person who might be able to shed light on the relationship between the ISI and the Lashkar-e-Taiba is Headley,  accused of working closely with the militant group in planning the Mumbai attack. And that is precisely why India is so suspicious of the U.S. reluctance to grant Indian investigators access to him.

Now to return to Washington’s policy towards India and Pakistan. The United States has been at pains to insist that improved relations with one country is not at the expense of the other - although in the zero sum game mindset prevalent in South Asia that is likely to be the way it is perceived.

The worry on India’s part is that in its haste to find a solution to Afghanistan, Washington will grab whatever help it can get even if this means putting Pakistan’s interests first. That could also mean giving priority to action against the Afghan Taliban while turning a blind eye to anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba, as it has been accused of doing in the past.

The enthusiastic reception given to Pakistan Army head General Ashfaq Kayani in Washington this week - belying earlier U.S. promises to nurture democracy - has already raised concerns about a tilt towards the military which has traditionally taken a harder line on India than civilian governments.

“… in its search for an exit route from the quagmire of Afghanistan, the Obama administration is in danger of becoming over-dependent on Pakistan,” the Hindu newspaper says in an editorial.  ”The presence of Pakistan’s army and intelligence chiefs at the strategic dialogue underlined the abnormality of the situation. Terrorism and extremist politics in the AfPak region are mainly the product of the Pakistani military establishment, which nurtured and patronised jihadi groups as a force multiplier. Despite this, a solution is now being sought by valorising and even strengthening the role of this establishment at the expense of Pakistan’s civilian structures of governance.”

Pakistan, on its part, has bitter experience of being used to further the U.S. agenda in ways which are not necessarily good for its own long-term interests – notably when it worked with the CIA to support the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-1989, and then found itself left to handle the blowback of Islamist militancy alone when the Americans lost interest in the region and left.

 If its new-found popularity with Washington comes at the price of a narrow focus on following U.S. interests, it could once again find itself at the losing end of the bargain.

Pakistan, writes Ayesha Siddiqa in Dawn, really needs to decide for itself the kind of country it wants,  its type of government and its attitude to militant groups long seen as strategic assets against India. “We have been keeping some of the ‘strategic assets’ because of the Pakistani military’s concern for India’s nefarious activities in Afghanistan. Let’s say that we manage to convince the U.S. to give us a role in Afghanistan where we could ensure our larger strategic interests. Would we then be willing to shut down the jihad machine?” she asks.

“Pakistan’s internal dialogue would require an assessment of how far it can go in using force to draw benefits and estimating strategic benefits and costs. While it must aim for gaining a foothold in Afghanistan to secure its position, a policy to force other neighbours out would prove counter-productive. It would help if Islamabad combined the acquisition of a role in Afghanistan with multilateral assurances that India or any other country would not threaten its core interests.”

One of the more obvious ways for India and Pakistan to get off the U.S. see-saw – where when one is up, the other comes crashing down – would be for them to take control over their own relationship. 

Both India and Pakistan have an interest in a stable Afghanistan. This is not Kashmir, whose disputed status goes right to the heart of both countries’ identities - Islamic Pakistan first laid claim to Muslim Kashmir on religious grounds back in 1947;  secular India says Kashmir’s fate cannot be determined on the basis of religion.  Afghanistan has however been a battleground for a proxy war for decades, run by intelligence agencies whose activities have probably been far bettter known to Washington than to the people of either India or Pakistan.

But finding common ground on Afghanistan would require both countries to build on the dialogue which began last month when India invited Pakistan’s foreign secretary to talks in New Delhi.  The alternative – as amply demonstrated over the past week – would be to leave it to Washington to set the agenda.

(Photo: India-Pakistan border checkpoint at Wagah, near Lahore)

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