A gentle nudge from Washington plays an immense role both in Islamabad and in New Delhi.
KAMAL KISHORE/PTI Hillary Clinton with External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna after signing an agreement in New Delhi on July 20.
Here the past and futureAre conquered, and reconciled.
– T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets.
AT the U.S. Department of State, just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in India, Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert G. Blake was asked about the India-Pakistan statement from Egypt. “Well, first of all,” said Blake, “we did not play any role. I mean, this was set up entirely between the two countries. It’s a continuation of some of the previous contacts they’ve already had. In terms of what we’d like to see come out of it, obviously, we want to see greater understanding and progress particularly on the issue of Pakistan moving forward with the prosecution of those responsible for the Mumbai attacks.”
Most analysts of U.S. foreign policy in South Asia agree that there is pressure from within Islamabad and New Delhi to reopen the discussions. For Pakistan, the situation is fairly transparent. Instability along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and the leakage of jehadi ambitions towards Islamabad have shifted the government’s priorities away from India: no longer the easy thought that it is from New Delhi that all of Pakistan’s problems hail.
Shuja Nawaz, Director of the South Asia Centre at the Atlantic Council and author of the highly regarded Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within (Oxford, 2008), put it quite plainly: “The key to the emerging rapprochement – it is not detente yet – is the realisation inside Pakistan that its biggest threat is not India but internal. Now if only ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] and RAW [Research and Analysis Wing] stop playing their spy v. spy games!”
Pakistan cannot afford to face three adversarial situations: one from within, one from the Afghan borderlands, and one from India (as well, another, in Balochistan, where the insurgency is older than Pakistan). India, too, has its own dynamic towards peace, with the Pakistani conflict a distraction for the government’s own agenda on the economic front. In addition, without any movement in the short term (regarding the Mumbai attacks), the Congress-led government is in danger of being held hostage by the Right. A peace process is in the interest, therefore, of the two governments.
Philip Oldenburg, a professor at Columbia University, points out that the new generation of diplomats on both sides of the border no longer carry old wounds and scars. They have a fresh perspective at the various areas that nettle the countries. Most of those in the Pakistani Foreign Ministry were born after Partition (Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi was born in 1956 and his Foreign Secretary Salman Bashir was born in 1952; the youngest member of the Cabinet is the Minister of State in the Ministry, Nawabzada Malik Amad Khan, born in 1973).
While Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna was born in 1932 (the same year as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh), the two intellectuals in the department (Minister of State Shashi Tharoor, born in 1956, and Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon, born in 1949) share the generational investments of their colleagues from across the border. The devotion to the traumas of Partition no longer operate; these new diplomats are given over to new faiths, such as in regional stability or else, more narrowly, for trade across the border (currently the rather low $1 billion annually).
These analysts suggest that the younger diplomats are on the road to reversing the kind of reality described by the RAND Corporation’s Christine Fair, who says, “Pakistan’s fears about India are historical, neuralgic and deeply existential.” Similar adjectives could be used to describe the view in India. This rapprochement might strengthen these new attitudes.
That said, most analysts recognise that the United States’ foreign policy has framed a considerable part of India-Pakistan relations, and given this, the gentle nudge from Washington plays an immense role both in Islamabad and in New Delhi. Shuja Nawaz, for instance, notes, “I do not think there was any direct U.S. involvement in the India-Pakistan talks, but certainly there must have been some behind-the-scenes encouragement to both sides.”
Howard Schaffer, with 36 years of experience as a U.S. foreign service officer in South Asia and the author of the newly published The Limits of Influence: America’s Role in Kashmir, said the U.S. “has quietly encouraged India and Pakistan to move forward in dealing with the backwash of the crisis triggered by last November’s Mumbai attacks and has urged them to resume their composite dialogue and back-channel talks”.
JAMAL KHAN/AFP Pakistani security officials at the site of a bomb blast in Dera Murad Jamali town in Balochistan on June 19. The stability in South Asia is an enormous concern for President Barack Obama, particularly given the chaos in parts of Pakistan and most of Afghanistan, says an analyst.
U.S. leverage over Pakistan is the greatest, with its annual disbursement of funds essential to the Pakistani military, whose hold on policy is still unbroken. Russia recently allowed the government of Kyrgyzstan to release use of the Manas Airbase to the U.S. for its operations in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s top brass would have seen their essential role diminish slightly, and so it might have felt the pressure more than ever before.
India’s desire to fashion the new “strategic relationship” with the U.S. comes with a considerably long purchase order. It is clear that the U.S. does not want to allow anyone to distract Pakistan’s work in the Afghan borderlands. After the Mumbai attack, when the war drums began to sound on the Indian side of the border (at least on the television screens), the Pakistani brass contemplated moving troops to shore up the Punjab and Kashmir border, to the consternation of the U.S. Sources in Washington say that the U.S. government was very committed to preventing any escalation. The Congress-led government faced significant political pressure to act militarily, but the government did not blink for a host of reasons. Washington was very grateful. It owed India a favour.
Washington returned the good turn with one of its own. Obama’s transition team had planned to appoint a number of special envoys to deal with troubled areas for U.S. foreign policy. Israel-Palestine, Iran and Afghanistan led the way. The first two were easy, but on the third, the Obama team wanted to appoint an envoy to South Asia.
Sources in Washington say that the Indian government did not want this, and so they reduced the ambit of their special envoy Richard Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was even a suggestion to have a special envoy to Kashmir (with Bill Clinton as the rumoured candidate), but this too was scrapped under Indian pressure.
During Hillary Clinton’s visit to India, Holbrooke’s absence raised some eyebrows. When asked about it at a State Department press briefing, spokesperson Robert Wood said that Holbrooke did not go with Hillary Clinton because he was preparing for his own trip the following week to Afghanistan and Pakistan. More likely, according to those who follow Washington closely, Holbrooke stayed out so as to assuage Indian fears that despite his title his domain actually included India.
The idea of “quiet diplomacy” and “behind the scenes” action is very much the hallmark of the Obama approach. Tinaz Pavri, a professor at Spelman College and an expert on diplomacy between India and Pakistan, said that the Obama team was very interested in being in the “shadows of any Indo-Pak dialogue or statements”.
Diplomacy and negotiation are central, with pressure from the U.S. kept out of the lead story, a process that was underlined to her when she visited the State Department in June 2009. Other experts concur. The Obama administration is eager to work with a light touch, which is a big difference from the sledgehammer technique of the George Bush team. But this is simply with regard to the tone. Whether the substance is altered is not so easy to determine.
The question of the substance is at centre stage on Iran and commerce (particularly the import of U.S. nuclear technology).
At Hyderabad House on July 20, Hillary Clinton said, “There is no difference between us on our positions”, sandwiching the Indian and U.S. policies towards Iran. In addition, the U.S. government is eager to fulfil its corporate liabilities: Hillary Clinton landed in Mumbai to meet with the captains of industry before she saw the government, and she went away with purchase agreements for the increasingly aggressive U.S. nuclear industry. Her statements on both Iran and nuclear commerce do not seem far from the views pushed by Bush, although done with a much gentler hand.
Fouad Pervez of the journal Foreign Policy in Focus sees a historic opportunity in this particular situation. Whatever the reasons, peaceful gestures across the border are to be welcomed. “There is little doubt,” Pervez said, “that the stability in South Asia is an enormous concern for Obama, particularly given the chaos in parts of Pakistan and most of Afghanistan.”
Will the Obama administration take some lessons from the failure of the military-driven policy in Af-Pak, as they call it? The drone attacks, the emergence of the Pakistani Taliban and the refugee crisis provoked by all this have only created resentment among ordinary people against the U.S. and the Pakistan government.
The U.S. excursion into Helmand province has already shifted Taliban troops and supporters into Pakistan, where they will resupply the depleted ranks of the militants. All of this, Pervez suggests, should show an open-eyed Obama administration that its Pakistan policy “is not working particularly well”, and so it might “want to push regional stability pretty strongly”. It is this opening provided by a lack of certainty in the Obama team that is now seized by the diplomats from India and Pakistan.
But, equally, Pervez points out, this opening will only be elaborated if the Pakistan government is given relief on the northern border, where the logic of armed rebellion has leaked into the country at large.
Continued U.S. military operations in and near Pakistan will not bring stability to Pakistan. In which case, the ruling elite in Pakistan might be forced into an adventure into Kashmir or elsewhere as a way to reassert its legitimacy among those whose faith in the state is flagging. •