For many years cloak and dagger games were being played in South Asia. The US and Pakistan were hand in glove. That was from 1960s and 70s onwards. Over three decades later, the plot changed. A partner got betrayed. Pakistan had sprung a surprise.
Having armed Pakistan to the teeth, the US was forced to acknowledge what it had chosen to turn a blind eye to. Pakistan was a terror hub. There was a new global order in place and emerging economies were more and more important in the 21st century. While the US had begun to change gears in its South Asia policy in the late 1990s, it unfortunately took the horrific 9/11 for it to wake up completely to reality.
But let’s rewind to the beginning. In the early years after Independence, India and America shared a warm relationship and Nehru addressed the US Congress about shared values and need for democracy. Dwight Eisenhower, who was the first US President to visit India, reciprocated this cordiality in full measure. John F Kennedy was another President who visited India and saw in us a friend and an ally who could help contain China.
The United States, which was helping India build its infrastructure and feed its teeming millions soon after Independence, began to grow more distant. Several projects that the countries were to undertake together were either stalled or postponed.
US aid to Pakistan was a different kind and mostly military in nature. Pakistan had been hostile to India ever since its creation. After having been unsuccessful in wresting Kashmir from India fully in 1948, when it had infiltrated tribal soldiers, the Islamic Republic had a burning ambition to build a strong defence apparatus which could trounce India. Pakistan was helped vastly by the United States in its aspiration to pad up its Army and Intelligence.
Even though the US did not come to the aid of Pakistan in its wars against India in 1965 and 1971 and Bangladesh managed to secede from Pakistan, the US and India continued to share a bitter relationship during this period. President Nixon and Indira Gandhi had a particular dislike for each other and this had a bearing on relations between the two countries. Nixon used to infamously refer to Indira as the “old witch” and had discourteously made her wait for hours before granting her an audience in Washington. Indira Gandhi had in turn lashed back and excited Nixon’s raw nerve when she gave the US President a piece of her mind about what she thought of his policies in Vietnam. This phase was probably the worst in Indo-US relations.
Equations began to change as Russia and the US locked horns and ideologies. After Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev visited India in 1955, India began to oscillate more towards the Communist Russia. By 1960s, Pakistan became an obvious choice for a partner of the US. Policy decisions related with one South Asian country began to have a direct implication on the other. Cold War strengthened these groupings and “hyphenations” were instated.
When India detonated a nuclear device in 1974, Zulfiqar Bhutto had sworn that Pakistanis would eat grass, but match India’s nuclear prowess. The fact that US needed Pakistan to fight its war in Afghanistan meant that it chose to look away when Pakistan pilfered nuclear blueprints and took China’s help to build its arsenal, what to say of illegitimate proliferation.
Russia’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 made the United States to rethink its position in South Asia. In the 1990s, it was a changed world and geo-political equations began to alter.
Nuclear ambitions of the two neighbours began to worry America. Aid and sale of defence equipment was suspended to Pakistan several times under the Pressler Amendment in 1990 and Glenn Amendment in 1998, when both India and Pakistan detonated nuclear devices.
The United States was forced to acknowledge that India was a growing power and the two nations had more similarities and shared values than its unnatural but very staunch partner Pakistan.
There are no longer two poles in the world. The US is the lone superpower, but a Communist China has emerged as the second most powerful country.
It is more populated than Russia, it has a sturdier economic framework and more determined leadership. India as a democracy, with a billion plus population, fast growing economy and regional superpower status can prove to be the counter balance which Kennedy had spoken of. Even Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State in Nixon’s regime, who used to join his President in calling India names, recently visited the country and regretted his comments and also admitted that America had made a mistake in not cultivating India in previous years.
Pakistan, in the meanwhile, has had innumerable military coups and dictatorships. Civilian governments, whenever elected, are weak and Army largely runs supreme writ. This de facto failed state, which is swarming with jehadis at war with the US, India, Europe and Israel, is possibly the most dangerous place on earth. Its moribund balance sheet is an affidavit of its economy being in shambles. Had it not been for Americans, the Pakistan would have collapsed long back.
The US cannot any longer afford to hold its relations with India hostage to those with Pakistan. America realizes that the hypen needs to be hacked, and both the countries need to have separate independent relations with the US. India and the US have been engaged in building a constructive partnership ever since Vajpayee declared the two nations as “natural partners”.
The visits of President Bill Clinton in 2000 and George Bush in 2006 had cemented ties between the world’s oldest and largest democracy. The fact that Obama chose to host his first State Dinner for Dr Manmohan Singh and his wife itself speaks volumes.
It is to underline the need for de-hyphenation that Barack Obama is not visiting Pakistan after his trip to India, a practice that was mandatory in the days of the hyphen. Earlier, Hillary Clinton became the first US Secretary of State in recent years to exclude Pakistan from her itinerary when visiting India post 26/11.
The US administration has been emphasizing this new thinking. Just ahead of Obama’s India visit, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication Ben Rhodes said, “The President (Barack Obama) believes that the US relationship with India and the US relationship with Pakistan does not take place within any kind of zero sum dynamic.”
“It was often viewed that way in the past, that if the US becomes closer to one it’s at the expense of the other. We’ve tried to send the signal that it’s the opposite with this administration,” he added.
USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 only intensified existing equations and hyphens. Though India refused to back Russia’s invasion, it also rebuffed US’ overtures to work with it against the Soviets. Again, the US turned to Pakistan which was a more than willing partner. America poured in money and military ware into Pakistan and trained its Army. It also let Pakistan radicalize its Pashtun population in madrassas to fight against Afghans. Thus, the genie of Taliban was created.
Following 9/11 in 2001 and George Bush’s “with us or against us” speech, General Pervez Musharraf had taken a U-turn on jehadis, at least officially. President Bush had rewarded Pakistan by declaring it a “major non-Nato ally” which immediately made it eligible for massive aid and advanced military technology.
The US would continue to need Pakistan to fight its war on terror and clamp down on insidious elements plotting attacks against it. The Obama regime is planning to triple non-military assistance to Pakistan mainly to keep the civilian government afloat and the Army on its side.
What has changed over the years are US interests. India and Pakistan both serve purposes of the Americans, albeit different ones. And these will require different types and levels of engagements. India will continue to grow more important for the US to ensure stability in South Asia and counter the communist philosophy of the Chinese. But Pakistan will remain vital to the US as long as it hopes to obliterate what Obama called its “cancer of terror”.
It would be imprudent of India to think that its new found bonhomie with the US can be taken for granted. We are, for example, yet to get the US backing for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council. More importantly, the US is in no hurry to jettison Pakistan.