The United States’ “de-hyphenated” relationship with the two South Asian rivals, Pakistan and India, is taking a curious turn. In a dramatic shift of fortunes, Pakistan is regaining its status as a key ally of the US in regional security.
At the same time, Washington is assuring India that it is the “lynchpin” of the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy directed against China. In sum, the US has assigned to Pakistan and India their respective roles to play in its grand strategy of “pivot to Asia”.
The US-Pakistan deal reached three weeks ago to reopen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s transit routes to Afghanistan was widely regarded as “a thaw without the promise of an impending spring” – to quote former Pakistani foreign secretary
Tanvir Ahmed Khan. But even keen observers of the corridors of power in Islamabad could go wrong, as the latest developments suggest.
To be sure, the US-Pakistan security cooperation, which faced a virtual shutdown following the killing of over two dozen Pakistani soldiers in a US military operation in the Afghan-Pakistan border region of Salala last November, is reviving. Washington rendered an “apology” to Islamabad over the incident, which in turn provided the Pakistani leadership with the fig leaf needed to move on.
At the invitation of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director David Petraeus, the Pakistani intelligence chief, Lieutenant General Zaheerul Islam, has scheduled his first visit to the US after taking over the post in Islamabad in March. Islam’s visit is expected to take place as early as next week.
The visit signifies a mutual willingness on the part of both Washington and Islamabad to revive security cooperation. Most important, it also means that the Pakistani military leadership is putting its weight behind the process.
Furthermore, Islamabad is now inclined to allow the return of some US military personnel to man intelligence centers on Pakistani soil after expelling them following the Salala incident. This is a dramatic breakthrough for the US.
An exclusive report in the Washington Post citing senior US and Pakistani security officials anticipates that spy chief Islam will also present to Petraeus a list of requests, including the transfer of drone technology and the upgrade of Pakistan’s F-16 fleet with equipment that will boost the aircraft’s accuracy, amongst others.
The US has already agreed to release US$1.1 billion for the Pakistani military. The two countries have also proposed to reconvene their Strategic Dialogue, which was last held in October 2010. The upcoming session in Washington is expected to provide the occasion for a visit by Pakistani army chief Parvez Kayani to the US.
On a parallel track, the two countries have negotiated a formal agreement regulating the operation of transit routes for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) trucks from the port of Karachi to the Afghan border. Under the terms of the agreement, Pakistan will continue to provide transit facilities on a gratis basis but the US would give Pakistan the money to maintain the highways used by NATO convoys.
Interestingly, the proposed agreement allows the transit of lethal equipment, which the NATO forces propose to withdraw from Afghanistan following the drawdown of troops through 2013-14. This will come as a huge relief for the Pentagon and NATO, since the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) through Russia expressly forbids the transfer of lethal equipment.
In qualitative terms, Pakistan is extending a friendly partnership whereas the NDA is based on commercial considerations. The preferred option for the US and NATO has always been the Pakistan routes, for reasons both of economy as well as of geopolitics. US dependence on the NDN will now significantly diminish.
Thus, on the whole, the Pakistani leadership is going the extra league to give new verve to the relationship with the US and the Western alliance, notwithstanding domestic opposition among sections of Pakistani opinion. This bold, politically risky push to revive Pakistan’s ties with the US is possible only with the backing of the military leadership in Rawalpindi. US commentators estimate that the negotiations over this swift turnaround were actually negotiated there in secrecy.
The US factors in that the situation in Afghanistan is dynamic and Pakistan’s cooperation becomes vital. For its part, Pakistan realizes that the continued US military presence in Afghanistan would make any takeover by the Taliban in the post-2014 a remote possibility. There is also a real danger of the US forces in Afghanistan confronting Pakistan sooner or later.
The generals in Rawalpindi see that without an immediate course correction, the emergent matrix is fraught with the grave danger of pitting Pakistan against the Western alliance, which would work to India’s advantage. They could sense that under US prodding, New Delhi lately hardened its stance on Pakistani support for terrorism.
In overall terms, Washington’s “pivot to Asia” strategy provides the backdrop for the restoration of the US’ security and military ties with Pakistan. Getting Pakistan on board is an imperative need for the US if its efforts to outflank China in the west are to gain traction. Looking ahead, Pakistan is also the key to the US’ New Silk Road initiative. Meanwhile, Washington sees the tactical advantages in keeping Pakistan on its side at a time of spiraling tensions in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
Unsurprisingly, Saudi Arabia has also come into the picture, proposing that it will help Pakistan to meet its energy crisis provided Islamabad cuts back on ties with Tehran. This offer has been held out at the level of the Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, who will himself meet the visiting new Pakistani Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in Jeddah on Monday. The new Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz is also expected to visit Pakistan.
Abdullah is virtually dusting up a US-Saudi-Pakistan trilateral security matrix that dates back to the Cold War era. Prior to meeting Ashraf, he received had another visitor on Monday – US National Security Advisor Tom Donilon.
The looming crisis in Syria and the rising tensions with Iran make it a pressing necessity for Saudi Arabia to revive security and military ties with Pakistan. Significantly, in his meeting with King Abdullah, Ashraf was quoted as saying, “[The] security of the two countries is synonymous and they will keep on enhancing their cooperation in all fields. The road map for furthering strategic relations of the two countries will be completed on faster pace.”
With the Saudis coming in, expectations begin to rise in Islamabad. Against the backdrop of the gathering storms in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf (and the US’ intensifying its rivalry with China), Islamabad will expect more than a mere transactional relationship with Washington and Riyadh.
Curry goes sour
Enter India. From the Pakistani viewpoint, the ultimate litmus test of the US’ goodwill lies in its willingness to curb the US-India strategic partnership, especially over Afghanistan.
As retired Pakistani general and respected columnist Talat Masood wrote recently, the US-India strategic partnership and the “deep converging interests” of Washington and New Delhi in Afghanistan and the region “generate insecurities” within Pakistan. “The India factor looms large in Pakistan’s strategic calculus.”
The US and Saudi Arabia will find it hard to reconcile this contradiction. The India-Pakistan differences are far too deep-rooted to be resolved in the near future, even with the combined US-Saudi muscle. But that will not stop Washington and Riyadh from trying.
It makes sense for Washington to seek King Abdullah’s good offices. The Saudi-Pakistani ties are traditional and very close. To quote an analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, “The Pakistan-Saudi Arabia partnership is the closest between any two countries that don’t have a formal treaty agreement, says former Saudi intelligence chief Turki bin Faisal. It’s a deeply rooted security partnership whose importance has grown as Riyadh-Tehran tensions rise and sectarian uncertainty increases in eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.”
On the other hand, India is also keen on developing a robust relationship with Saudi Arabia, and Riyadh made a friendly gesture recently (with Washington’s encouragement) by deporting to New Delhi a terrorist who was allegedly involved in the Mumbai attacks in November 2008. Having said that, New Delhi will remain averse to any Saudi mediation as such in settling its differences with Pakistan.
There is a sense of disquiet already in New Delhi at the curious turn of the tide in the US-Pakistan standoff. Of course, what is happening today between the US and Pakistan against the backdrop of the “new cold war ” happened before too during the other Cold War in history books and, therefore, it can only bring a sense of deja vu to the Indian mind.
At the same time, the qualitative difference today will be that while Pakistan is a basket case for Washington, India happens to be the US’ latest milch cow. The US has already sold weapons worth over $8 billion to India. The US ambassador in New Delhi, Nancy Powell, has been quoted as saying, “We [US] are poised to sign an additional $8 billion in direct commercial and foreign military sales.”
Last week, in an unprecedented statement, President Barack Obama demanded the opening up of the Indian market for the benefit of the US industry and business. He singled out India’s $430 billion retail trade sector.
Clearly, the “de-hyphenated” relationship with Pakistan and India is working brilliantly for the US. The growing US-India understanding on regional security unnerves Pakistan and in turn strengthens the US’ negotiating hand vis-a-vis generals in Rawalpindi.
On the other hand, the US lavishes much rhetoric on India, and encourages it to keep its eyes riveted on the horizons beyond the South China Sea in the east, while at the same time striking lucrative arms deals with New Delhi.
During a visit to New Delhi recently, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta openly described India as the “lynchpin” of the US’ Asia-Pacific strategy. Meanwhile, to add to the sense of insecurity of the Pakistani generals, a prominent Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, just brought out a 72-page report exhorting New Delhi to press the pedal to accelerate “defense trade”.
All this is great “public diplomacy”. But are Indians such duffers as not to begin to seriously wonder what is the meaning of the deep rumblings at their side facing the West where the US-Pakistan security and military tie-up is getting restored?
The unkindest cut of all for the Indians will be that Washington also has been instigating New Delhi on the quiet in recent weeks to raise the ante on Pakistan’s support for terrorism as part of a “psy-war” to herd the generals in Rawalpindi toward the negotiating table.
No one likes to stand out like a lemon. The Indian policymaker is getting that sickening feeling when the coriander curry has gone sour.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)