Growing ties between New Delhi and Washington are not a zero-sum game for Pakistan.
There’s concern in Pakistan over the strategic partnership between the United States and India. Starting with President Bill Clinton’s administration, there is a bipartisan political-strategic consensus in Washington over closer, multifaceted ties with New Delhi that has survived 24 years and three U.S. presidents. In India, the growing relations with the U.S., which began with Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] and continued through the two terms of Dr. Manmohan Singh of the Congress, are seeing India coming even closer to the U.S. under the current prime minister, Narendra Modi.
The U.S., under President Barack Obama and with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, launched its “pivot to Asia” policy. The pivot, or ‘rebalancing’ has two broad aspects: it seeks to refocus Washington to East and Far-east Asia’s established markets through mechanisms like the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and in doing that seeks to check China’s rising power in the region. This is reciprocated by countries of the Pacific rim that want not only to take advantage of the trade potential of the TPP but also need U.S. presence as a check on China. Beijing, in recent years, has clashed with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands and also laid claims “elsewhere in disputed maritime territory.” The Philippines, for the first time in 20 years, has allowed the U.S. to “resume hosting military forces at the Subic Bay Base.”
In this scenario, as Senator John McCain, speaking at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace said: “India and the United States must play a leading role, both together and with other like-minded states, to strengthen a rules-based international order and a favorable balance of power in Asia.” In fact, McCain’s speech and its reproduction by Foreign Policy magazine was captioned: “The Pivot to India.”
However, McCain also insisted that “None of this means that India or the United States seeks to antagonize or exclude China. Both our countries want a constructive relationship with China, which is in our interest, and China’s too. The India-U.S. strategic partnership, in all its forms—diplomatic, economic, military—is critical to encouraging China to rise peacefully in the present order, rather than trying to unilaterally and coercively change the status quo.”
Even so, it is clear to observers that alliances are being made for a larger strategic game in the region whose contours will become clearer in the years to come. China, for its part, is embarked on ambitious Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (SREB/MSR) projects that are meant to, among other things, “circumvent any encirclement or containment that a hostile power in concert with other states may undertake to harm China’s interests.”
New Delhi’s growing U.S. relations, therefore, need to be seen in the context of Washington’s desire to tap into a very large Indian market, India’s desire under Modi to take advantage of DTTI [Defense, Trade and Technology Initiative], U.S. strategic requirement to place India at the center of its pivot and India’s desire to balance China through bandwagoning. According to McCain, “What should follow is an ambitious strategic agenda to shore up a rules-based international order that supports our common security and prosperity.” He identified three areas of concern: South Asia, the Middle East and “East Asia and the Pacific, where the key challenge to a liberal, rules-based international order comes more from strong states and growing geopolitical rivalries than weak states and non-state actors, as in the Middle East.”
This is of course a very sketchy account of an intricately complex game involving multiple state actors with convergences and divergences. Everyone has their vulnerabilities and both the U.S. and China, while flexing muscles, are also trying to woo the states in this neighborhood. Neither can afford a direct confrontation. For China the region is her near-abroad; for the U.S. the region involves her core strategic interests. The states in the region cannot directly confront China so they need the U.S. Equally, they neither want to antagonize Beijing nor be left out of the latter’s ambitious One-Belt, One-Road project.
How will South Asia fare in this game? More specifically, how does the U.S. look at South Asia, given its pivot to India?
This is the challenge for policymakers in Pakistan. So far, analyses in Pakistan have focused on the negativity of the U.S. tilt toward India. This analysis seeks to challenge the prevailing wisdom that strategic ties between the U.S. and India are necessarily a minus for Pakistan and/or increase strategic risks for Islamabad. In fact, I believe that closer U.S.-India relations lessen the probability of India taking decisions during Indo-Pak crises that could destabilize the region and by doing that hurt the core interests of the United States. Of course, this analysis relies on three factors: one, that stability in South Asia is important to U.S. interests, which involve stable U.S.-Pak relations despite differences in certain areas; two, Pakistan can deftly make use of the space provided it by closer Indo-U.S. ties to diversify to the Russian Federation and Iran while mending relations with the Gulf states and working towards reaching out to the ASEAN countries; three, Pakistan can think innovatively and adopt a combination of military and non-military policies to prevent the strategies of coercion from kicking into play.
I believe that all three factors are in play here—or should be. I also believe, in relation to the third factor, that the presence of nuclear weapons in South Asia makes any hot conflict largely impossible not only because of bilateral deterrence, but also because any such possibility will drag other world powers, especially the United States, into a crisis ensuring that any untoward situation does not escalate to that level. In this, from the Kargil conflict to the Mumbai crisis through the 2001-02 standoff, a strong case can be made that both India and Pakistan, Delhi more than Islamabad, were constantly signaling to the U.S.
In this context, it is deeply interesting that evidence available through WikiLeaks and other sources indicates that New Delhi was depending heavily—and at times desperately—on Washington to influence Pakistan and Pakistani actions. This was because India realized, on all three occasions, that any direct confrontation with Pakistan would fail to get any tangible military and diplomatic results and it was strategically more useful to involve the U.S. and in doing that also acquire moral high-ground. Essentially, the argument here, while acknowledging the role of bilateral deterrence, stipulates that the presence of third parties, especially the United States, plays a vital role in containing any crisis situation between Pakistan and India.
From this perspective, India is much closer now—and more dependent—on the U.S. than it was then. If the trajectory of relations continues, the U.S. influence will become even more pronounced. That gives the U.S. much greater leverage over Delhi today—and in the years to come. To drive the point home, I will consider the case of Mumbai and the evidence of signaling.
But first a quick note about Kargil and the 2001-02 standoff.
In Kargil, even as the two sides exchanged 13 threats referring to nuclear weapons, in reality India relied on the U.S. to get Pakistan to withdraw. The diplomatic pressure on Pakistan, not just from the U.S. but also China and Saudi Arabia meant that Pakistan was not in a position to launch another offensive to relieve pressure against its defending forces in the limited Kargil-Dras-Batalik sector even as India concentrated its infantry, artillery and airpower against Pakistani defenders to overwhelm them in a limited theater of conflict.
In 2001-02, India’s decision to mobilize its army was a political one, which was war-gamed after the mobilization began. Also, while it was India that began to mobilize, Pakistan’s reactive mobilization was complete and in place much before India’s because of shorter interior lines. Indian war-games indicated no real advantage of opening hostilities against Pakistan and there was much confusion about how exactly to go about punishing Pakistan (see, Alex Stoler’s paper for Stimson Center: To the Brink: Indian Decision-Making and the 2001-2002 Standoff). India again relied on signaling to the U.S., as did Pakistan. The U.S. satellites were monitoring the situation and at one point, under U.S. pressure, India sent Lt. Gen. Kapil Vij, commander 2 Corps, on leave after the general was found to have deployed his troops too close to the international border.
Pakistan, in 2001-02, as well as post-Mumbai attacks, Nov. 26, 2008, had no intention of opening hostilities or getting into a hot war with India. On both occasions, the onus of action was on India. Politically, New Delhi was forced to be seen as doing something. On both occasions, while talking tough, India appears to have calculated, accurately—despite discordance in decision-making—that the military option was unlikely to beget intended results and might even bring Pakistan on an equal moral footing with India. India, therefore, talked tough about keeping all the options on the table while privately informing U.S. officials that it was not contemplating war. For instance, within 10 days of the attacks, both Indian Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and National Security Adviser M. K. Narayanan told David Mulford, the U.S. ambassador to New Delhi, that India was not looking to employ force against Pakistan, with Narayanan even suggesting that attacking Pakistan would “let Pakistanis off the hook.” The Indians also reportedly viewed U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit right after the attacks as “helpful [and] timely” even though she had primarily urged restrained and promised to push Pakistan hard.
The WikiLeaks cables also indicate that India was cognizant of the fact that it could not coerce Pakistan alone and relied heavily on the U.S. to twist Islamabad’s arm. Then-External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who had earlier threatened Pakistan, told U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte in an official meeting on Dec. 12 that “we deeply appreciate the efforts you are taking.” He acknowledged that “what little steps [Pakistan] is taking is because of you.” Three days after this meeting, Narayanan acknowledged to John Kerry that Pakistan was not going to yield to Indian pressure and thus, “the U.S. and U.K. can help since they [had] provided much of it [the evidence].” He added: “You might be able to persuade Pakistan unlike how we can.”
The U.S. for its part was asking India to lower its expectations about what Pakistan can be made to do. This was primarily with reference to India’s demand that Pakistan extradite all the alleged Mumbai accused. The Indians told the U.S. that they would accept that their trials be held within Pakistan even as the crisis was peaking in mid-December.
At the same time, U.S. officials who visited Pakistan were signaling that India was prepared to use force if Pakistan did not meet New Delhi’s demands. At one such lunch meeting on Dec. 6 with Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham—McCain had come from India and apparently told the Indians that the U.S. was “one-thousand percent behind India” and that he would talk tough in Pakistan—in which this writer was present, the senators said that “Pakistan must respond against terrorists implicated in Mumbai or, McCain feared, India would take military action.” I expressed my skepticism about such a possibility and said that “the terrorists aimed to incite hostility between India and Pakistan [and] India [should] consider resolving the Kashmir issue, which would help combat a ‘deep sense of alienation’ in the region.”
During his trip, McCain and his Congressional colleagues also met Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and were told that Pakistan was actively pursuing the accused terrorists identified to Pakistan by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier the same week. Pakistan also confirmed that it was not objecting to the blacklisting of the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa members and their charity fronts under UNSC resolution 1267. This Gilani presented as proof that Pakistan was sincere in its efforts against terrorism.
Pakistan also took other steps like setting up an investigation task force on Jan. 15 to signal its commitment. A U.S. embassy cable to Washington reported: “[Interior Minister Rehman] Malik…is trying to produce concrete results every day for the international community. At the same time, he is trying to build domestic support by framing the process in a way that makes the GOP [Government of Pakistan] (not India or the U.S.) appear to be the demandeur.” Less than a month later, the embassy reported its praise for the investigations before their findings were made public, including stressing that India had not provided sufficient evidence to Pakistan to carry the investigations forward.
According to another U.S. cable, Malik had initially (right after India shared its detailed dossier carrying information from their investigations with Pakistan on Jan. 5) gone to the extent of saying that the U.S. will be allowed selective access to the investigation of the Mumbai accused as long as the fact was kept under wraps. Subsequently, he pulled back by suggesting that FBI access to the suspects was politically untenable but promised the U.S. that he’ll send a team to Washington to share all the information.
The U.S. officials also remained extremely conciliatory with the Indians throughout. They seemed to have learnt from past experience. In the 2001-02 standoff, the U.S. and the U.K. had rattled India by issuing travel advisories that caused tremendous losses to the Indian economy. This time, when it came to issuing advisories to U.S. citizens, Indians were informed in advance. David Mulford confirmed to Indian officials that the advisories would be put out as “sensitively as possible.” And they were.
The U.S. was, however, aware of what it could and could not do. For instance, when India insisted later on that a distinction needed to be drawn between the Pakistani civilian government, who they felt had no role in the Mumbai attacks, and the army and the ISI that they accused throughout of having been in on the whole plot, the U.S. refused to go along.
At the same time, the U.S. didn’t mince words with Pakistan in trying to warn the leadership that it now saw the LeT as a global threat, including directly to the U.S., and that Pakistan needed to clean up its act. This was perhaps the first time the U.S. had clearly signaled that its view on LeT matched India’s.
The important point in this quick account is that with India getting even more close to the U.S. and their interests getting intwined, New Delhi will be further pressed to stay close to Washington’s line during any crisis. At the same time, Pakistan retains its own importance for Washington which knows how far it can go in pressing Pakistan without diminishing returns setting in.
Islamabad will, therefore, be advised to start looking at relations with the U.S. without necessarily becoming weighed down by the India factor.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect, in part or whole, those held by Newsweek Pakistan.