Sunday, October 24, 2010


Pakistan's Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar (L), US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (2nd-L), Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani and US Admiral Michael Mullen listen as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (not in picture) speaks during the US-Pakistan Dialogue Plenary Session at the State Department in Washington, DC, on October 22, 2010. – AFP


by Huma Yusuf

Three days, 13 working groups, countless delegates. They came from across Pakistan to Washington to strengthen the bilateral relationship. They came to talk of water, energy, women’s empowerment, and much else. What they really discussed — whether inadvertently, or inevitably — was India.
The headlines have focused on the new security assistance package and joint counter-terrorism efforts. But the week’s strategic dialogue between Pakistan and the US was to some extent hijacked by Islamabad — and Rawalpindi’s — concerns about New Delhi. 

Most of these concerns were addressed at an explicit level. On Tuesday before the dialogue kicked off, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, speaking at an event at Harvard University, asked the US to do “everything in its power” to help Pakistan and India resolve the Kashmir dispute. The request was reiterated on Friday, when Qureshi bluntly suggested that US President Barack Obama intervene in the Kashmir issue during his November visit to India (even though the US has defined the territorial dispute as a bilateral issue between Pakistan and India). 

During his talk at Harvard, Qureshi also emphasised Pakistan’s continuing desire for a civilian nuclear deal with the US, akin to the one inked between Washington and New Delhi. Not surprisingly, the US entertained little public discussion on this issue, and instead asked the Pakistani delegation for more details about its civilian nuclear development pact with China. 

And then there was the touchy topic of Obama paying a visit to Pakistan to balance out his scheduled trip to India. On this point alone did the Pakistanis leave the White House satisfied: on day one of the dialogue, Obama promised to visit Pakistan in 2011, and even extended an invitation to President Zardari for good measure. If the goal of this overture was to quash further talk of how the US might ease discriminatory treatment of Islamabad vis-à-vis New Delhi, it didn’t work. 

Quid pro quo demands aside, an India complex permeated other aspects of the dialogue, albeit on an implicit level. Take, for instance, our delegation’s push for maximising trade opportunities for Pakistan (as an aside, allow me to compliment the rhyming propensities of Qureshi’s speechwriter, who had our foreign minister asking for trade, not aid; viability, not dependency; MOUs, not IOUs). The call for free-trade agreements and Reconstruction Opportunity Zones can be read as an effort by Islamabad to have Washington (and thus the international community) view Pakistan through something other than a security lens. It is a plea to treat Pakistan as a viable, rather than failing state; an appeal to invest in the country on the basis that it is emerging, not imploding. In other words, it is an endeavour to have Pakistan treated more like India than Afghanistan. 

In recent years, Pakistanis have complained about the fallout our nation’s re-hyphenation, from Indo-Pak to Af-Pak. In the former construction, we were a nation with potential — an aspiring global player that could, if properly harnessed, give India a run for its money. Reconstrued as the better half of Afghanistan, Pakistan has been rebranded as a rogue state, a pariah on the fringe of the community of nations. By prioritising our economy in high-level engagements with the US, we are asking to be re-hyphenated yet again. 

If this reading seems over-analytical, consider the repeated mentions during the dialogue of the recently established transit trade agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan, which is expected to generate $2bn for the two countries. The agreement was touted as an example of Pakistan’s openness to bilateral trade, mutual prosperity and eventually, lasting regional peace (ironically, India was shut out of this agreement on Pakistan’s insistence). In this context, the question arising from the dialogue is, why is India back in the forefront of Pakistan’s discussions with the US? The obvious answer is that Obama’s upcoming trip to India has Islamabad concerned about retaining the love of its old ally even as Washington tries to woo a reluctant New Delhi. 

Moreover, India has become the wild card that both Islamabad and Washington toss on the table when they disagree about counter-terrorism efforts in Afghanistan. When the US tells Pakistan to ‘do more,’ Pakistan tells the US to ‘do more’ to rein in Indian aspirations. 

In recent days, for example, the US made tough demands on Pakistan: crack down on the Haqqani group, launch military operations in North Waziristan and Balochistan, allow US Special Forces more flexibility to target militants, and halt terror attacks in India. In turn, the US has assured Pakistan a role in settling the Afghan dispute, indicating that our authorities will participate in negotiations with the Taliban, thereby shaping the ruling order of a post-US Afghanistan. 

This is necessarily at the expense of India’s growing economic and political influence in Afghanistan. It also adversely impacts US-India relations: India has rejected Pakistan’s involvement in reconciliation efforts — New Delhi fears the plan will backfire, and that the Indian administration will be left to deal with the blowback once the US withdraws. 

But the flipside applies here too. If Pakistan fails to uphold its side of the bargain (again), the US has expressed a willingness to use its own India card. This idea was clearly expressed by Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He recommends that if Pakistan fails to honour its commitments, the US should strengthen its alliance with India by allowing New Delhi to invest in Afghanistan’s stability. 

All told, here’s the takeaway from this strategic dialogue: to ensure peace and stability in South Asia, Pakistan should send high-level delegations to New Delhi, not Washington.

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