In diplomacy, there are no permanent friends or foes. India’s External Affairs minister S. Jaishankar at the recently concluded India-US 2+2 Dialogue said that the United States wants Pakistan “to take immediate, sustained and irreversible” actions against terrorist groups on its soil. As far as public pronouncements are concerned, no one can doubt what Jaishankar is saying about Trump’s America. But had this been President Donald Trump’s real intention, the US could not have logically approved the resumption of military training for Pakistan, which was suspended in 2018. The US did this a day after Jaishankar’s announcement.
The US State Department, which runs the Military Education and Training (IMET) programme, will now allow Pakistan to send its officers to various prestigious American military institutions. At first glance, this might seem like an insignificant decision. But this move, which is bound to reduce pressure on Pakistan to improve its revisionist behaviour, raises doubts on whether the US shares India’s views that Pakistan should be isolated globally for its support of terrorism.
What Trump says and what he does are two different things. Therefore, there are strong reasons to believe that the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy stops at the India-Pakistan border. In many ways, it is a good strategy because it de-hyphenates India from Pakistan, which has long been the demand of New Delhi. After all, Pakistan has been at war — diplomatic, military and ideological — with India ever since it was created after Partition. It soon annexed parts of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and began its national journey through deception, coercion and brinkmanship. Pakistan’s hostility towards India has had many disturbing consequences for South Asia. But the US conceptualisation of Pakistan’s role in its South Asia policy is at odds with that of India.
Ties between the US and Pakistan have been fractured and going downhill for a long time, particularly after al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was eliminated in Abbottabad in 2011 by the US special forces. When Trump announced in September 2018 the suspension of all US military assistance to Pakistan over its double-dealing in Afghanistan, the bilateral relationship had reached its lowest point. Trump also cut $300 million in military aid that same month. A year before that, Trump had already infuriated Pakistan’s security establishment by “appreciating” India’s developmental approach in Afghanistan.
Indians had every reason to be ecstatic as Trump continued to pressure Pakistan to mend its ways. Perhaps, Pakistan’s ways might have changed had the pressure upon it been really severe. Unfortunately, it was not, and in any case, the Trump administration was not willing to prolong America’s costly engagement in Afghanistan because the domestic audience has decisively turned against it.
Eventually, the two Cold-War allies began to warm up to each other after Washington realised that its desire to exit from Afghanistan stood no chance of being fulfilled without Rawalpindi’s overt and covert help. The US Special Envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, had little option but to co-opt Pakistani leadership in persuading the Afghan Taliban to begin negotiations for the peace deal.
In July 2019, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan met Trump at the White House. They met again on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September. Soon, US officials publicly acknowledged Pakistan’s help in restarting the Afghan peace process. Trump even went to the extent of offering help in mediating between India and Pakistan to resolve the Kashmir issue, notwithstanding the fact that the offer lacked any substance. When the Afghan talks reached a deadlock in September, Khalilzad again sought Pakistan’s help. There were also reports of Pakistan’s cooperation in arranging the release of two foreign hostages from the Taliban’s custody.
US’ changing perception
The impact of Pakistani leaders’ frequent ‘pilgrimages’ to Washington coupled with their intense lobbying in the US Congress remain highly debatable. And New Delhi would also like to interpret Pakistan’s current engagement with the US as nothing but empty rhetoric.
However, what the recent trends seem to indicate is the US’ changing perception towards Pakistan.
The resumption of Pakistan’s participation in the IMET, which may not be such a big deal in terms of overall US-Pakistan dynamics, seems clearly designed to appease Pakistan’s powerful military establishment, which will further entrench a ‘culture of entitlement’ for its senior ranks. This also shows American preference for military-to-military contacts to shape policy-making in Pakistan.
Despite a huge trust deficit between Washington and Islamabad, the US is not prepared to allow China and Russia to make further inroads into Pakistan by taking advantage of Islamabad’s current vulnerabilities. It should not be forgotten that against the background of deteriorating US-Pakistan ties, Russia had signed a special agreement with Pakistan in 2018 to allow its army officers to receive training in Russian military academies. Pakistan also is a key component of China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While India continues to get sympathetic response from the US for its real concerns on cross-border terrorism, the US does not seem to be interested in making matters unbearable for nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The real villain
Ideally, the US would like India to shift its military and diplomatic focus away from its western border to fulfil a role as envisaged in America’s Indo-Pacific strategy. Although India had demonstrated its resolve during the Doklam standoff in 2017, it has since hesitated to antagonise China. However, except for some cooperation in bilateral trade and global diplomacy through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, what strategic convergence has India with China? The 2+2 ministerial dialogue between India and the US in which Jaishankar participated was all about China, not Pakistan.
The real villain of this puzzle is China. And India’s ‘Pakistan problem’ is also an extension of its ‘China problem’. China’s unrestrained political and strategic forays into India’s neighbourhood have inflicted heavy burdens on New Delhi. This has only exacerbated geopolitical realignments, forcing India to play a largely defensive role in South Asia.
Beijing itself is very clear that Pakistan is essential to its regional strategy, making no effort to discontinue its patronage of Pakistan. Given India’s myriad internal weaknesses, many of them self-inflicted, New Delhi’s policy of isolating the country’s boundary disputes with China from its overall Indian Ocean strategy has its own consequences. So, as long as Indian foreign policy establishment feels that its Pakistan problem can be solved with muscular assertiveness while remaining equidistant from the intensified US-China competition, it should be ready to be disappointed.
The author is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, Sardar Patel University of Police, Security and Criminal Justice. Views are personal.
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