Convergence of counter-interests
Recent escalation in tension between nuclear-armed Pakistan and India figured high among US international concerns last week, with Secretary John Kerry cautioning against implications of South Asian hostilities, amidst tenuous search for Afghan stability.
“It’s of enormous concern to all of us for all the obvious reasons,” the chief American diplomat said of the latest frictions between two regional rivals.
“These are two very, very important countries playing a critical role with respect to regional interests, and it’s very, very important that there be no misinterpretation or miscalculation with respect to any of the back-and-forth and the empowerment some entities might feel as a result of that,” he said.
The comments came soon after Kerry spoke to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and a telephonic conversation between Sharif and his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi following acrimonious statements from both sides. Kerry’s remarks reflected serious international concerns, from fears of a nuclear conflagration to strengthening of militancy and extremism, partly spawned in the region by seven decades of Pakistan-India conflicts.
A strident war of words between Islamabad and New Delhi threatens to cast a shadow on high-stakes developments taking place in the region including a US military transition in Afghanistan, a decisive phase in Islamabad’s fight against terror, worries over ISIS introduction into the local militant mix, and upbeat outlooks for the two largest South Asian economies.
President Barack Obama’s planned drawdown of American troops by 2016-end hinges on a modicum of stability in Afghanistan, and achieving that goal is challenging task for the US-backed Afghan unity government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani. Reversing his predecessor Hamid Karzai’s rancorous relationship with Islamabad, Ghani has sought Pakistan’s help with curbing cross-border militancy and elusive reconciliation between the Afghan Taliban and Kabul.
“The US does not want to see anything happening like enmity between Pakistan and India that may distract Pakistan’s fight against militancy – that will be against US interests in addressing terrorism,” explains Dr Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar at the Middle East Institute.
Recent bout of statements
The recent bout of inflammatory exchanges started when ultranationalist leaders in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government threatened to carry out the like of a raid in Pakistan, India conducted along its Burmese border in pursuit of militants. Pakistan retaliated by saying any “misadventure” would meet a telling response, with Defence Minister Khawaja Asif even implying the possibility of a nuclear recourse in self-defence.
President Barack Obama’s planned drawdown of American troops by 2016-end hinges on a modicum of stability in Afghanistan, and achieving that goal is challenging task for the US-backed Afghan unity government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani
Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s earlier statement to “neutralise terrorists through terrorists only” and later Modi’s chest-thumping dig in Dhaka about Indian army’s backing of Mukti Bahini militant movement – resulting in 1971 separation of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh — also bristled Pakistanis.
Modi’s statement on the use of militancy to advance New Delhi’ interests in the past goes against the spirit of ongoing fight against terror in the region, although it is well known, as noted by scholar Yelena Biberman in an Atlantic Council brief that in addition to assisting the Bengali and Baloch insurgents in Pakistan, India has supported Tamil separatists in Sri Lanka and Tibetan dissidents in China.
Meanwhile, New Delhi fumes over a Pakistani Court’s release of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, a leader from the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group India says carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.
This week Modi’s UN ambassador made an abortive attempt to raise the issue of Lakhvi’s freedom before a UN sanctions committee. New Delhi is also resentful of Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed’s openly hurling statements against India.
Last month, army chief Gen Raheel Sharif, corps commanders as well as civilian Pakistani leaders accused Indian spy agency RAW of sponsoring terrorists in Pakistan. Islamabad is concerned that India might try to sabotage $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor following reports that Modi had opposed the plan during a visit to Beijing.
Meanwhile, in Kashmir where Pakistan and India last year exchanged heavy fire across the Line of Control, people have been largely peaceful in pressing their demands. However, this month the UN-recognised disputed region observed a complete shutdown to protest a wave of civilian killings in the Indian held territory. The longstanding dispute lies at the heart of South Asian conflict. The latest claim in a BBC report that the MQM received Indian funding – though denied by both the political party and India- – may further complicate Pakistan-India suspension of peace.
Pakistan’s fight against militants
Pakistan last year launched an unprecedented operation, known as Zarb-e-Azb, in North Waziristan. Indicating abandonment of the past strategic depth policy, Islamabad says it is targeting all terrorists without any distinction between the good (Afghan) and the bad (Pakistani) Taliban. But the presence of Afghan Taliban leaders on Pakistani side and sanctuaries of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militants including Mullah Fazlullah on the Afghan soil are issues the two countries have yet to resolve. The two countries have agreed on an intelligence sharing accord but need to build trust for effective cooperation. The democratic progress in both countries is also vital to defeating militancy in the region.
The one-year-old Pakistani operation has had three broad effects. It has severely constrained the TTP’s ability to launch attacks, disrupted the Afghan Haqqani Network – long termed by the US as a serious threat to Afghanistan, and further weakened al-Qaeda’s ability to operate in the region.
“Recent Pakistan military operations have caused some disruption to the Haqqani Network. However, it has still been able to plan and conduct attacks,” a Pentagon report submitted to Congress this month said.
A State Department report on worldwide state of terrorism noted: “Pakistan’s ongoing offensive in North Waziristan Agency, launched in June 2014, further degraded the (al-Qaeda) group’s freedom to operate.”
Yet, the military offensive is one piece of the Pakistani fight. According to the interior ministry, there are dozens of militant and sectarian outfits operating under different names. Besides putting them out of business, Islamabad must win the battle of ideas to cancel out the acerbic militant narrative that fuels extremist mindset. And it is here that Pakistan-India tensions could further exacerbate militancy and upset Pakistan’s hard-earned progress, particularly since December 16, 2014 massacre of Peshawar schoolchildren, because like other conflicts, any Pakistan-India standoff feeds into militant narratives on both sides. Indian militant organisations like RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) also use anti-Pakistan rhetoric.
Additionally, despite some economic development, South Asia fares low on the list of integrated regions and according to the latest Institute of Economics and Peace, it is because of a spate of troubles in the Middle East that the region looks less restive.
Then there is the cataclysmic fear that Pakistani-Indian conflict could spill into the Afghan theatre as witnessed during the 1990s civil war, when India backed the Northern Alliance while Pakistan supported the Taliban.
Both Islamabad and New Delhi compete for influence in Afghanistan, with India also trying to bypass Pakistan and get access to Central Asia through Iranian Chabahar port and Afghanistan. Plans for regional connectivity and trade expansion could also face obstacles.
As confirmed by the Pentagon, the ISIS militants are already trying to recruit fighters and the Taliban, some of them supported by Iran, warned the ISIS against a turf war. Clearly, another Afghan descent into chaos would be a catastrophic with global ramifications.
Pakistan has long been concerned that New Delhi having greater Indian clout in Afghanistan would result in Indian encirclement of it from the Western border.
For the United States to maintain its primacy on the world stage, it must have a measure influence in South Asia and the region housing around half of the world population. Both Pakistan and India border US competitor China in the only part of the world where three nuclear powers have thorny unresolved disputes between them. The Iranian nuclear question also has unknown ramifications for the region. India, a large market of a billion-plus population and lucrative destination for pricey defence equipment, is seen as a long-term trade partner and potential strategic counterbalance to China.
Pakistan, home to around two hundred million people with immense economic potential, is only recently emerging out of stagnation. Under intense international scrutiny for militancy along the Afghan border and now largely eliminated North Waziristan sanctuaries, Pakistan still has much work to do put its house in order. Pakistan’s counter-militancy actions and intelligence sharing along the Afghan border and geostrategic location at the heart of potential trade and energy corridors between South and Central Asia as well as the oil-rich Gulf and energy-guzzling China, amplify its regional significance.
The challenge for Washington lies in sustaining relations with both Pakistan and India in a way that helps them with containing tensions and paves the way for their emergence as major international partners
A key factor in the fight against militancy has been the US-Pakistan cooperation and the bilateral relationship has largely recovered from issues like controversial drone strikes, 2011 discovery of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and the US raid that took him out.
The US has been orchestrating its South Asia policy carefully, treading a fine diplomatic line vis-à-vis Pakistani-Indian interests. That remains the case despite the fact that President Obama has paid two visits to New Delhi. Soon after the White House announcement of US President’s visit to New Delhi in March, Obama called Prime Minister Sharif to reassure close bilateral relations. Similarly, before entering into a recent defence deal, the US approved provision of a $1 billion military and counter-terror equipment for Pakistan. While Washington backs Pakistan’s call for dialogue, it avoids overt mediation towards resolution of the Kashmir dispute, saying it would play that role if asked by both sides.
America’s close relationships with Pakistan and India give it a unique leverage in the region. Washington remains the only world power with the ability to influence conflict management between Islamabad and New Delhi. The US shares concerns with both the South Asian countries. With New Delhi, it voices weariness over the LeT militants being able to live freely in Pakistan. It is alive to Pakistan’s security concerns with regard to use of Afghan territory by anyone including Kabul and India for stirring up unrest in Pakistan’s tribal areas and the strategically poised Balochistan province. A top TTP commander Latif Mehsud was plucked by the US from Afghan intelligence service and later handed over to Pakistan. Washington has also declared Mullah Fazlullah, the TTP leader hiding in Afghanistan, a global terrorist.
In the post-9/11 years, the US-Pakistan-India triangular equation has gone into hi-octane motion when, putting aside the notion of complete dehyphenation, top-level American shuttle diplomacy helped South Asia retrieve from the precipice of war during the 2001-2002 military standoff, and again in the wake of Mumbai 2008 attacks.
“There is a recognition here about Pakistan’s concerns and the need for Pakistan-India dialogue to resume – the US also has appreciation for Pakistan’s democratic development and consensus in the fight against terrorists,” says Pakistan’s Ambassador in Washington Jalil Abbas Jilani.
Though China-India relations have been progressing economically, New Delhi has been using its wealth on a defence shopping spree. But, given the current suspension of peace process and the history of animosity, Islamabad fears India’s massive weapons accumulation and increasingly relies on the nuclear capability.
Additionally, Islamabad believes that in addition to Indian defence buildup a 2006 civilian nuclear technology agreement could tip the “strategic balance” in the region, a point Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmad Chaudhry highlighted during Strategic Dialogue in Washington the this month.
At the same time, the US and China have been enhancing Pakistan’s defence capabilities. Beijing and Washington appear to have both competing and complementary interests. Both back their own versions of silk roads. The US supports energy projects like CASA 1000 and TAPI that may raise stakes in regional connectivity. Quite significantly, the US, China and Pakistan all back Afghan-led reconciliation but many Indians are averse to such a prospect suspecting greater influence for Pakistan from political empowerment of the Taliban, who mostly hail from the majority Pashtun population. The US and China also discussed Pakistan and Afghanistan with reference to regional stability at their Strategic Dialogue during the week.
In the broader perspective, Washington also believes India would not be able to graduate into a bigger international player if it remains bogged down in South Asian conflicts.
The challenge for Washington lies in sustaining relations with both Pakistan and India in a way that helps them with containing tensions and paves the way for their emergence as major international partners. That would likely require a greater convergence of geo-economic interests that takes precedence over strategic and political divergences among all major players – a challenging prospect.
In the absence of a meaningful South Asian peace dialogue a vastly improved US-Pakistan relationship with an attentive ear to Islamabad’s security challenges vis-à-vis Afghanistan and India would be crucial to stabilising Afghanistan, curbing militancy as well as preventing another Pakistan-India standoff.