Why is Pakistan so upset with Obama’s India visit?
Barack Obama’s headline-making India visit last month took Pakistan to an especially dark place. The U.S. president’s overfriendliness, said our zero-sum talk show hosts, meant harder times for Pakistan from an unholy Indo-American alliance. The national pity party appeared to also affect Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who said that, “The U.S. can itself judge India’s seriousness in maintaining peace with Pakistan from the tension on the Working Boundary and excessive ceasefire violations” in disputed Kashmir. Sharif’s thrust: It is criminal for Obama to make nice with India ignoring its egregious trespasses in Kashmir.
The same talk show hosts thanked Allah for Gen. Raheel Sharif. At the same time that Obama was being regaled in New Delhi, Pakistan’s Army chief dashed off to Beijing, where General Sharif’s counterpart, Gen. Fan Changlong, declared China and Pakistan “strategic partners” and “iron brothers.” On Feb. 2, Islamabad gleefully announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend Pakistan Day celebrations, being held after a seven-year gap, on March 23 as guest of honor.
Just what is the big deal about Obama’s India visit?
The talking heads who complained that Obama should have also come to Pakistan ignored his personal forewarning to Prime Minister Sharif in December that he would be attending India’s Republic Day celebrations and won’t be able to touch down in Pakistan. The pundits also ignored another event that would have made an Obama visit uncomfortable: the heaving, convulsing anti-Charlie Hebdo rallies where clerics have demanded Pakistan break off ties with France and, quite gratuitously, also with the U.S. Two clerics with international bounties on their head, Hafiz Saeed and Fazlur Rehman Khalil, have also demanded Pakistan quit the United Nations since Obama is supporting India’s bid for a permanent seat at the U.N. Security Council. Nonstate players like Saeed are powerful and have a long reach. In fact, this is one of the reasons that extraordinary security was mounted for Obama in India.
Pakistan was not mentioned in the joint Indo-U.S. statement, but there was significant reference to regional terrorism that applies to it: Obama and India’s Narendra Modi reaffirmed the “need for joint and concerted efforts to disrupt entities such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, D-Company and the Haqqani network,” and agreed to continue ongoing efforts “through the Homeland Security dialogue as well as the next round of the U.S.-India Joint Working Group on Counterterrorism in late 2015” to develop “actionable elements of bilateral engagement.” Saeed, who founded Lashkar-e-Taiba, is wanted in India for the 2008 Mumbai attacks. And Indian Express explains that D-Company is a transnational crime syndicate run by Dawood Ibrahim, wanted in India for the 1993 Mumbai bombings. On Jan. 15, the U.S. State Department imposed sanctions on Pakistani businesses it said were owned or controlled by Ibrahim.
There’s no reason for this talk against Saeed, Ibrahim and the militant groups to upset post-Peshawar Pakistan. After the attack on Peshawar’s Army Public School, Pakistan’s political and military leaders have vowed to take on all terrorists and their sympathizers. Further, Ibrahim is “not in Pakistan,” and several of the militant organizations in question have been banned by the U.N. (with China not vetoing the move) and by Pakistan itself. Any denialist offense taken at India and the U.S.’s decision to “disrupt” these entities will be at odds with Pakistan’s approved National Action Plan against terrorism.
The world is looking differently at Pakistan. The new factor is the decision taken by Pakistan to confront regional and global terrorism fanning out from the safe havens in its tribal territory. Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan’s ongoing military operation in the northwest, has greatly disabled local and foreign terrorists. The states that have expressed their open relief and approval of the operation include those Pakistan perceives as being at strategic cross-purposes with it. General Sharif’s warm receptions in the U.S., Afghanistan, the U.K., and China reveal this universal approval.
China in Your Hand
In The China-Pakistan Axis: Asia’s New Geopolitics, Andrew Small notes that the previous Army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, shied from cleaning up the terrorist safe havens in the northwest because of feared “blowback” in Pakistan’s plains. He also notes that this didn’t please the Chinese, who repeatedly emphasized the threat to them from ETIM, the Uighur terrorist organization located in North Waziristan. When Kayani made his farewell call to Beijing in October 2012, an SUV crashed through the crowds in Tiananmen Square killing two tourists and injuring 38 others. The culprits turned out to be Uighurs based close to the China-Pakistan border.
Kayani forestalled peace in the region during his six-year tenure and the Chinese expressed their unhappiness to then-president Asif Ali Zardari, who, despite several trips to China, couldn’t succeed in his diplomacy.
There have been signals from China that it takes a dim view of the permanent state of regional hostility emanating from Pakistan’s Kashmir-first approach to India. China, too, has simmering border disputes with India, but is also India’s major trading partner; their bilateral trade volume is set to reach $90 billion. China has also invested heavily in Afghanistan and doesn’t want Pakistan to play spoiler there. It wants to up regional trade: its offer of the north-south economic corridor across Pakistan parallels a similar offer of the Eastern Silk Road joining China with India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, opening up the strategic Bay of Bengal to trade.
There’s no reason for this talk against Hafiz Saeed, Dawood Ibrahim and the militant groups to upset post-Peshawar Pakistan.
Obama’s visit clinched the big civil nuclear deal with India. This will earn big money for U.S. companies so far blocked by the Indian refusal to let Washington track fissile material coming to India through the deal. Competing with China, which went into Gujarat with large investments during the time the U.S. was refusing to even issue a visa to Modi, the U.S. thought it could regain some lost ground even though India’s protective red-tape regimes might take some time to break despite Modi’s efforts. After a decade of high growth, the Indian economy is far ahead of Pakistan’s. India is in the same economic league with China in BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and tempts an America trying to get out of a bad patch fighting its decade-long expensive war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq. When Obama landed in India, Pakistan was engulfed in a near-total blackout following a “petrol crisis.”
Obama and Modi have also agreed on a “joint strategic vision” of “economic integration of the regions” stretching from South Asia to Central Asia. This reference should be familiar to Pakistan because it has already signed under SAARC various documents pertaining to “infrastructural connectivity” (read: transit highways) with India under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Pakistan has so far resisted the idea of allowing a transit facility to Indian goods exported to Afghanistan and Central Asia, but is in a bit of a cleft stick about a commitment given to Kabul earlier about the transit of Afghan exports to India through its territory. The recent warning from Kabul on the subject, so far unheeded, may jeopardize the new relationship built with President Ashraf Ghani by General Sharif. Pakistan needs to unclench its jaw on regional strategy since the Central Asian republics too are alienated from it for the same reason as India, China, and Iran.
Pakistan’s strategic thinking suffers from obsolescence on two points: international isolation and a negative construction of its geopolitical vision. Because of cross-border terrorism from its territory, the world is more preoccupied with fear of nuclear Pakistan’s future than on any fair consideration of its case-making against India. Pakistan’s geostrategic “advantage” has been misinterpreted by its strategists, ignoring the fact that this advantage depends on Pakistan’s allowing transit trade through its territory, not on blocking it. So far the “blocking” strategy has lessened its strategic bonus by forcing its neighbors to exploit alternative routes.
It is significant that Pakistan is allowing its territory to be used for some international trade because of China. But the national mind is still concentrated on possibilities of war with India. The greatest flaw in this nationalism is its isolationism and the lack of credence in its explanation of how and why India is determined to destroy Pakistan. Today, the residual strategic importance of Pakistan flows from its contiguity to Afghanistan. India and China are going to be the dominant presences in Afghanistan in the coming days, with India enjoying the status of a SAARC partner with a history of positive Indo-Afghan relations. It is time Pakistan broke out of its isolationist shell with global assistance.
General Sharif’s change of tack on terrorism has enhanced Pakistan’s leverage with Afghanistan and the U.S., with encouragement from China. This has given Pakistan some diplomatic advantage against India with regard to the current cross-border shelling along the Line of Control and Working Boundary. But Pakistan needs to move further for the consolidation of this advantage. It must normalize relations with India to be in a position to discuss the outstanding bilateral issues that all neighbors usually have to tackle.
Daniel Markey of Johns Hopkins notes that at present, “Modi has taken India out of serious bilateral negotiations with Pakistan. This missing piece of India’s strategy is profoundly dangerous, even counterproductive.” He urges Obama to point this out to India “not as a critic, but as a friend who recognizes the potential of peace through strength, Indian-style.”
Nothing happened from Obama’s visit to New Delhi that endangers Pakistan strategically. The world, including China, does not see deepening Indo-U.S. ties as some sort of reversal for Pakistan. As for the so-called “disturbed strategic balance” between Pakistan and India, this perception is simply illusory. It is wrong and ultimately self-damaging to pit Pakistan against India militarily or strategically. Pakistan has already suffered enough because of this national myth-making.
From our Feb. 7-14, 2015, issue.