India could benefit from US-Pakistan strains

President Obama has vowed the United States will keep working with Pakistan.

Updated: May 05, 2011, 15:30 PM IST

Washington: The US military assault that killed Osama bin Laden at his hideaway in Pakistan will inevitably alter Washington`s approach to Islamabad -- and India may stand to gain.

President Barack Obama has vowed the United States will keep working with Pakistan, which he called an essential partner in the fig ht against al Qaeda and its allies including the Afghan Taliban.

But with bin Laden`s death fuelling doubts about the viability of the US-Pakistan relationship -- and removing the original reason for American military involvement in Afghanistan -- Washington`s primary focus may shift back to New Delhi as the region`s economic and political heavyweight.

"This will further encourage closer US-Indian collaboration, intelligence sharing and cooperation, and finding ways to work with India to address regional stability issues writ large," said Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant Secretary of State for South Asian affairs under the Clinton administration now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, and the two nuclear-armed rivals remain deeply suspicious of each other despite a fragile rapprochement launched under Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

India has suffered major militant attacks including the devastating 2008 assault on Mumbai and fears that a hasty US exit from Afghanistan could empower Pakistan and give free rein to extremist groups.

India also has been frustrated by what it sees as insufficient US pressure on Pakistan to share intelligence about militant groups operating in its territory. That pressure likely to sharpen after bin Laden was discovered living in a Pakistani military garrison town just 40 miles (65 km) from the capital of Islamabad.

"Osama bin Laden`s death will not change the US prism for seeing Pakistan," said George Perkovich, director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"It will make Washington feel it has, or should have, more leverage to push the Pakistani security establishment to go after terrorists ... (but) this is probably over-optimistic."

While the US-Pakistan relationship has revolved almost entirely around security and the war in Afghanistan, Washington`s ties with India are much broader, underpinned by a thriving USD 50 billion annual trade relationship.

New Delhi and Washington are also concerned about Pakistan`s growing ties with China, which could move them even closer as they assess their next steps.

Big question

The White House has vowed to press Pakistan on whether anyone in its government, intelligence community or military had helped bin Laden elude the long manhunt before he was finally killed. That question has prompted some in the US Congress to call for a review of economic aid to Pakistan.

"There were concerns raised, and legitimate concerns by Congress about bin Laden and where he was discovered," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.

Political analysts said this could mark a turning point, particularly if it expands into a broader review of alleged links between the Pakistani military and intelligence agencies and other extremist groups. These groups include the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Toiba, which New Delhi has blamed for the November 2008 attacks on Mumbai that killed 166 people.

"If this leads to some sort of new conversation between Washington and Islamabad, to a material change in Pakistani policy, then I think it will have major repercussions," said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told a Senate committee hearing on Tuesday.

Many analysts say the chances of this are remote given strains in the relationship with Islamabad over US drone attacks on insurgents along the Afghan border and Pakistan`s six-week imprisonment of a CIA contractor earlier this year.

Dan Markey, a South Asia specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said that both the United States and India should be cautious in their public pronouncements with neither likely to benefit from more friction with Pakistan.

"We should be hard edged and in some ways very coercive about the way that we interact with Pakistan military and intelligence leadership at this moment, but we should not simply back them into a corner and leave them no option," he said.

But India`s ability to benefit from strains in the US-Pakistan relationship may also be limited.

While New Delhi`s ties with Washington are generally smoother than those of Islamabad, the limits of the relationship were made clear when India rejected bids from American companies for an USD 11 billion jet fighter deal last month despite Obama`s personal lobbying during a trip last year.

Stephen Cohen, an India expert at the Brookings Institution, said India and the United States would likely boost cooperation, but both countries were focused on similar long-term goals of stability for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Senior levels of the Indian government no longer take pleasure in Pakistani agony," he said. "They know that if the Pakistani house burns down, the sparks will blow over to India."

Bureau Report