September 28, 2011

A Fighting Chance

The following article originally appeared in The Indian Express on September 28, 2011.

Even veteran observers of the US-Pakistan relationship — long inured to suppressed animosity — have been surprised by the severity of the latest US message and the choice of messenger. Although constituting no major revelations, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen’s testimony to a Senate committee last week, in which he accused Pakistan’s government and military of exporting terrorism, has focused public attention across the US and around the world on the growing fissures in US-Pakistan ties.

The latest accusations follow a brazen attack on the US embassy compound in Kabul, which, according to Mullen and other US officials, was planned and executed by the Haqqani network with ISI support. Mullen stated that the government of Pakistan — and in particular the army and the ISI — were using “violent extremism as an instrument of policy”. At the same hearing, US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta refused to publicly detail what policies the United States were now contemplating with regards to Pakistan, when pressed by committee members.

The decline in US-Pakistan relations last year has been well-documented. The Kabul embassy attack is but the latest in a series of revelations that have shed light on Pakistan’s duplicity, following close on the heels of the outing of the CIA station chief in Pakistan, the arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis, several developments in China-Pakistan ties, and the killing of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani heartland. Although an uneasy diplomatic d├ętente might yet be possible, the overall trajectory in US-Pakistan ties is likely irreversible. It is almost impossible, for example, to envisage a US strategic relationship of the kind Pakistan has long desired, involving virtually carte blanche development aid, the provision of advanced military hardware, and limits to US cooperation with India. The growing consensus in Washington is that, over the short-term future, US-Pakistan ties will be purely transactional in nature.

But while a cold, mercenary relationship may satisfy US political and military leaders and buy Washington both time and space, it will not address the structural factors that make Pakistan a challenge to regional and global security and stability. These include a political system and notion of the national interest dictated by the army, a socio-political climate conducive to religious extremism and ethnic strife, and a willingness to incubate and employ terror as a means of advancing national objectives. Such dysfunctions will persevere, and while the United States may one day extricate itself from South Asia, India does not enjoy that luxury.

The present state of US-Pakistan relations thus presents a rare opening of sorts for New Delhi. Developments over the past five years have broadly supported India’s view of Pakistan as a hub of state-supported international terrorism under an unaccountable, untrustworthy and temerarious military leadership. So for the first time, the United States may be willing to entertain Indian policy inputs with regard to Pakistan. Although New Delhi has often been understanding of the US dependence on Pakistan, and at other times justifiably critical of its wilful blindness to Pakistani transgressions, it should now be more forthcoming in articulating what approach to Pakistan it would like to see Washington adopt. This will be a major test of the Indian strategic community’s acumen and responsiveness.

Unfortunately, there is a real danger that New Delhi will miss its chance. Turning George Santayana’s aphorism on its head, the historian Arthur Schlesinger once wrote: “Too often it is those who can remember the past who are condemned to repeat it.” Indian policy-makers, who continue to dwell far too much on the United States’ history of support for Pakistan, risk overlooking the present juncture as a ripe opportunity to shape US regional policy in India’s favour.