Washington's Frustrating Obsession with Pakistan

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif travelled to Washington last week for a bilateral visit packed with significance. Washington’s relationship with Islamabad has been the topic of much talk in America lately, following the breakdown of Pakistan-sponsored talks with the Taliban and the subsequent fall of the Afghan town of Kunduz to militants late last month. And despite rumors about a possible India-style nuclear deal between the United States and Pakistan, pressure was mounting on President Obama to take up Pakistan’s disreputable record on counter-terrorism, human rights and nuclear proliferation with Sharif.

Arguing against a nuclear deal with Pakistan, South Asia scholar Daniel Markey noted in The Diplomat that “there is simply no time for a nuclear deal”, pushing American diplomats instead to address “Pakistan’s bad behavior on other fronts” more urgently. Another column in Foreign Policy put things more bluntly, asserting that the “central problem confronting the United States in the region is no longer al Qaeda or the Taliban”, but rather the Pakistan Army.

If you read the joint statement issued by the two leaders in Washington, none of this clarity is evident. While President Obama called for a purely bilateral settlement between India and Pakistan on Kashmir, he also promised hydroelectric projects in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, almost as if to rival a similar deal that Islamabad inked with the Chinese earlier this year. Washington ruled out a nuclear deal even before Sharif landed in America, but the joint statement nonetheless presses for Pakistan’s enhanced engagement with multilateral export control regimes. Then, on terrorism, while appreciating Pakistan’s actions against groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the statement makes no mention of Islamabad’s reluctance to appeal against the bail given to that group’s commander, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.

The paradoxes reveal America’s obvious and deep-seated dilemma in dealing with Pakistan. Often, on separate visits to India and Pakistan, senior American diplomats find themselves speaking in different voices – pressing for talks between the two when in Islamabad, and calling for more action against terrorists in Pakistan when in New Delhi. The trouble is clear: America’s Pakistan policy isn’t driven so much by choice as by compulsion. Washington knows that Islamabad often misuses the billions of dollars it pays the latter to fight terrorists, but Washington has little choice but to pay. In Afghanistan, both America and the Afghan government – whether under Karzai or Ghani – are greatly distrustful of Pakistani intentions, but both know that the Taliban can’t be kept quiet without Islamabad’s active involvement. When relations between America and Pakistan reached a low in 2011, Islamabad simply cut off supply lines to NATO forces in Afghanistan and quietly paralyzed America’s operations till Washington yielded.

For most in America, all this seems terribly silly – and it is. Each year, America’s relationship with Pakistan costs Washington billions of dollars of tax money in the form of ‘military aid’. Separately, America has to carry out drone attacks to take down the same terrorists it pays Islamabad to kill, even copping criticism and hate for it from disgruntled civilians in Pakistan. For all its leadership towards rapprochement with the Taliban, Pakistan managed to hide the fact that the group’s former commander Mullah Omar had in fact died in a hospital more than two years ago.

But America still sees no alternative – unless India can step up and fill Pakistan’s strategic void. To both America and Afghanistan, a more proactive New Delhi is more than welcome. Granted, India can never have the sort of influence that Pakistan has over terror groups operating in the region. Geography also means that NATO supply lines would still have to pass through Pakistan, no matter how active India becomes. But despite the strong case for India’s active involvement, New Delhi has been strangely reticent. In a recent interview, Afghanistan’s Defence Minister Mohammed Stanekzai spoke of his government’s requests for attack choppers from India. While Kabul has made repeated requests, he said, New Delhi has been shy. Afghanistan then renewed its request for four choppers, following the fall of Kunduz, and even had the chief of US forces General John Campbell travel to India and throw his weight behind their plea.

If India is to get America to act against Pakistan, it has to fill in Pakistan’s strategic position somehow. Equipment and training for the Afghan military, along with providing institutional support for Afghan governance, is a start. Joining counter-terror operations in the region along with the rest of the coalition might be a politically unpopular idea, but it makes sense for India to do more towards fighting the terrorists who threaten its own security.

Luckily, for all its disadvantages in the region, India can do things for America that Pakistan never can. Take free trade. No American dreams of stronger economic collaboration with Pakistan, but every American does want to see ties with India. India missed a golden opportunity by sitting outside the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations (many say that the terms of the TPP include IPR laws that India can never agree to, but even Mexico, Chile, Peru and others have the same issues with the TPP; that is why there are negotiations). While India has stepped up its involvement as part of the security framework in the Indian Ocean and South East Asia, its enthusiasm falls short of that of all other American allies, largely due to fears of upsetting China.

If India is to make any headway in correcting American policy towards Pakistan, New Delhi has to assert it’s importance in Afghanistan and give Washington a dependable alternative. It’s time for New Delhi to leverage its unique strengths.

(c) 2015, Swarajya