On U.S., India and Pakistan: maybe some transparency would help

April 5, 2010

biden karzaiAccording to the Wall Street Journal, ”President Barack Obama issued a secret directive in December to intensify American diplomacy aimed at easing tensions between India and Pakistan, asserting that without détente between the two rivals, the administration’s efforts to win Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan would suffer. ”

“The directive concluded that India must make resolving its tensions with Pakistan a priority for progress to be made on U.S. goals in the region, according to people familiar with its contents,” it says.

It also says there is a debate within the U.S. administration over how far to push India to improve relations with Pakistan, with the Pentagon lobbying for more pressure on New Delhi and the State Department resisting, arguing this could backfire.

The idea that resolving tensions between India and Pakistan is central to stabilising Afghanistan is not new. Its importance rose up the agenda during Obama’s election campaign in 2008. And it never really went away despite successful Indian lobbying to keep any reference to India or Kashmir out of the title given to U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke in January 2009.  At the time, the truncated title was seen as not so much as a reflection of ground realities (Pakistan has always fixed its foreign and security policies in relation to India), but as a way of providing the space for discreet diplomacy to succeed where public pressure might fail.

What is new is the context.   India is deeply sensitive to what it sees as Washington’s favouritism towards Pakistan as it tries to find a way out of the stalemate in Afghanistan.  As a result it has become “America’s Wounded Ally” in the expression used by Indian analyst Sumit Ganguly in Newsweek, angry with Obama for turning his back on a blossoming relationship forged by his predecessors.

As a brief aside, this has happened before. Immediately after 9/11 India sought to capitalise on its then growing ties with the United States by offering the use of Indian bases for its campaign in Afghanistan only to see Washington turn instead to its old Cold War favourite Pakistan. At the time, an Indian analyst I knew rather graphically compared the sense of betrayal in New Delhi to that of a mistress whose lover goes back to his wife.  His analogy may have accurately captured the emotional response at the time, but it was wrong in substance, since India and the United States went on to build an even stronger relationship, including signing a deal effectively recognising India as a nuclear power.  The same may yet happen again despite all the current hand-wringing.

However, to return to the subject of the WSJ report, and the debate over how far Washington should go to push India and Pakistan into improving relations:

The WSJ quotes State Department officials as arguing that the most recent promising peace effort – secret reconciliation talks on Kashmir several years ago between Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh and then-Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf – occurred without U.S. involvement.

At least three questions need to be asked about that statement.

First of all, are they really talking about no U.S. involvement at all? As we now know, U.S. and British diplomats were involved in encouraging those backchannel talks, smoothing out the rough edges and many misunderstandings, even though they did not actually sit at the same table to mediate.

Secondly, how do we know those talks made progress specifically because of the limits on U.S. involvement? Some analysts argue that India’s coercive diplomacy in the military standoff with Pakistan from 2001-2002 forced a change of heart in Musharraf, transforming him from the architect of the 1999 Kargil war to a leader seeking peace over Kashmir. Others say Musharraf, who seized power in a military coup in 1999, wanted peace with India to secure his own legacy and bolster his position within Pakistan. With so many variables, it is impossible to say with any certainty which one played the most significant role.

Thirdly, those talks were held in secret, with the result that they failed to carry public opinion or even subsequent governments along with them. Was this secrecy really that helpful?  Secret meetings between top Indian and Pakistani envoys in hotels in third countries away from the glare of the media have their uses - as demonstrated by the progress made on Kashmir in the back-channel talks under Musharraf.  But how helpful can they be if they remain deniable and unknown to the public? 

A different, and possibly more productive debate, would be over whether anybody gains from the total lack of transparency in relations between India and Pakistan and in the extent of U.S. involvement.

Some of the most contentious issues between the two countries are those that are the most opaque.  India is deeply suspicious of the attitude of the Pakistan Army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group blamed for the November 2008 attack on Mumbai.  It has not helped that the Lashkar-e-Taiba is seen in India as behind last month’s attack in Kabul which targeted Indians.  The United States has muddied the waters further by stalling on giving India access to David Headley, the Chicago man accused of working with the Laskhar-e-Taiba to plan the Mumbai attacks. 

Pakistan in turn is deeply suspicious of India’s presence in Afghanistan, accusing its intelligence agency of funding militants, including Baluch separatists, to destabilise Pakistan – an accusation India denies.  The United States has yet to be particularly clear about where it stands on India’s role in Afghanistan.

In the meantime, nobody knows for sure how much the United States is working behind the scenes to convince both countries to talk, or for that matter to try to dampen down the proxy war their intelligence agencies are accused of fighting in Afghanistan.

According to the Indian blog, The Acorn, news of the Obama directive in the WSJ report will make it even harder for Indian Prime Minister Singh to pursue peace moves with Pakistan for fear of being seen to do so under U.S. pressure. “Mr Obama has put Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in a political difficult position. The news of the White House ‘directive’ making it into the public domain will, paradoxically, severely damage any prospect of New Delhi making things easier for the United States, even when such actions might be in India’s own interests.”

That’s in line with current thinking that discreet diplomacy is more effective than open discussion. But discreet diplomacy has not worked. How about going the other way into far greater transparency?

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