Allies, not friends

Issue 23 - Jan 2009

Dhruva Jaishankar

Despite Indian perceptions of gullible American officials being led around by the nose by their Pakistani counterparts, recent US policy towards Pakistan has been premised upon a clear set of priorities that has frequently put it at odds with New Delhi’s viewpoint. US officials are fully aware of Pakistan’s recent transgressions: its whole-hearted support for the Taliban prior to 9/11 and a reluctance to relinquish its influence in Afghanistan since, the blatant proliferation of nuclear equipment and technology by the father of its nuclear bomb with some level of official sanction, the frequent blind eyes cast by its military and intelligence agencies at jihadi militancy within its borders, and its lack of strong democratic institutions. 

Where Washington and Delhi differ is in how to respond to these transgressions. For India, laden with a history of enmity with its western neighbour since 1947, the default response is a hostile one, whether aggressive (as in 2001-2002) or passive-aggressive (as in 2008-2009). On the other hand, US policy is premised on a calculation that Pakistan’s geography, demographics, military and nuclear arsenal mean that it cannot afford to deal with an overtly hostile Pakistan. This calculation has underlain US policy for so long that recent, sustained calls in the American media and by members of Congress to jettison the Pakistan military alliance have failed to gain much traction in several government agencies. At the same time, though, the US Central Command and the State Department have evidently been reconsidering the wisdom of remaining so vulnerable to Pakistani interests. The compromise strategy has been to postpone the day of reckoning and with it any combination of military aggression, state failure, nuclear weapons and international terrorism that may accompany it. 

But there will inevitably come a moment where either Pakistan or the United States will be forced to recast their present, awkward relationship. Either the Pakistani government, including the army and the ISI, will realise that its game is up, and that it must relinquish its current strategy with regards to both Afghanistan and India in exchange for a more docile policy of regional co-operation. The second possibility is that one dramatic event—such as a terrorist attack on American soil with unambiguous Pakistani fingerprints—will force outright hostility between Islamabad and Washington. The United States continues to hope that the former will play out first. India believes—and should fear—that it will be the second. 

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