Raja-Mandala: Silence is golden

Post-Pathankot, Washington must remember India-Pak ties improve when it refuses to intercede

Written by C. Raja Mohan | Updated: January 12, 2016 11:36 am
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If speech is silver, silence is golden. That old adage might be specially relevant to Washington, whose words since the terror attack on the Pathankot airbase have generated some confusion. America may have been well-intentioned in injecting itself into the messy India-Pakistan diplomacy. But it could end up pleasing neither New Delhi nor Rawalpindi.

When official spokespersons speak too often, they tie themselves in knots trying to manage the perceived contradictions between their different statements, cope with the unintended signals they generate and lose control over the basic message.

Washington’s immediate reaction to the Pathankot attack had two elements: One was to ask Pakistan to act against anti-India terror groups and the other was to urge India not to suspend talks. That seemed reasonable and helped reinforce the mature reactions in both Delhi and Islamabad. Even more important, the American position was more positive than that of other powers. China, for example, urged India and Pakistan not to allow the terrorists to disrupt the dialogue. Beijing had no direct appeal to Pakistan on acting against terror groups on its soil targeting India.

The problem began a few days later, last Thursday, when US State Department Spokesman John Kirby’s comments seemed to suggest an American wobble towards Pakistan. His comments were interpreted in Pakistan as giving Islamabad much leeway in determining the pace of its promised probe on Pathankot.

For Delhi, the comments were irksome just when it had put out the word that the scheduled visit of Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to Islamabad later this week will depend upon Pakistan taking quick and visible action against those who organised the terror attack on Pathankot.

Sensing the damage in Delhi, the State Department did a quick flip to brief the Indian media in Washington that the Obama administration was not letting Pakistan “off the hook” on Pathankot. A couple of days later, Secretary of State John Kerry stepped in to reinforce the original messages to India and Pakistan on talks and terror in his telephonic conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The public readout on Kerry’s phonecall affirmed the importance of sustaining the renewed dialogue between India and Pakistan and the urgency of concluding Pakistan’s investigation into the leads provided by Delhi and action against the Jaish-e-Muhammad.

But it’s never easy to take back the spoken word. The episode only reinforces the lingering suspicion in Delhi that the State Department and the White House have returned to the old American habit of tilting towards Pakistan on regional issues.

Evidence? Delhi cites Washington’s recent botched effort to offer a nuclear deal to Pakistan and finding other interesting ways to reward the Pakistan army. They also believe Washington is ceding too much ground to Pakistan and China in Afghanistan.

Although not everyone would concur with Delhi’s assessment of the current US approach to Pakistan, there is no escaping an important trend line. Nearly 18 months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Barack Obama set a scorching pace for elevating the US-India strategic partnership, the old demons relating to Pakistan may be returning to haunt the relationship.

At the purely diplomatic level, US diplomats have long known the perils of public hectoring India and Pakistan on what to do with each other. In a region that is quick to see conspiracies, especially those plotted by outsiders, American public appeals always have an effect opposite of that intended.

The greater the American anxiety on continued talks between India and Pakistan, the lesser the support in Delhi and more room for spoilers in Islamabad. India does not like third-party intervention in its engagement with Pakistan, while Pakistan never misses an opportunity to “internationalise” its disputes with India. But no Pakistani leader would want to be seen as “appeasing” India under American pressure.

Sceptics of America’s South Asia policy take the argument a step forward by insisting that America has no real leverage over Pakistan. They ask a simple question. If Washington could not get the Pakistan army to behave in Afghanistan, where the US was spending much blood and treasure over the last decade, how can the Obama administration persuade Islamabad to do the right thing on the sources of anti-India terror?

The fact is that much progress in India-Pakistan relations occurred when Washington, during the years of George W. Bush, refused to intercede in India-Pakistan affairs on a routine basis. During 2004-07, Delhi and Islamabad found ways and means to limit cross-border terrorism, discuss Kashmir-related issues and expand confidence-building measures. An America that is less anxious about India-Pakistan relations, separates its bilateral relations with Delhi and Islamabad, and manages the tension between the two sets of policies might be more successful in achieving its broader regional objectives in the subcontinent. Less is often more in diplomacy. Diplomatic persuasion works a lot better in private than in public.

The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, and consulting editor on foreign affairs for ‘The Indian Express’

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  1. K
    K SHESHU
    Jan 12, 2016 at 8:59 am
    Amrica hs to welcome the talks between India and stan on terrorism - related issues because its own people are affected by it. The seeds of terrorism are in stan and US can crush the spread of violence only if the two neighbour countries come together and form a united strategy to combat terrorism by rooting out terrorists from the lands of both the countries at he earliest.
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      Arun
      Jan 12, 2016 at 4:52 pm
      USA is the root of all evils. Many people believe Rajiv hi ination was arranged by USA and LTTE was the executor. It has no policies regarding terrorism. The one and only policy it has is that whatever it does it would be to the advantage and benefit of USA. After their objectives are achieved the terrorist groups that are created by them would be destro by them or their allies..
      Reply
      1. K
        kumar
        Jan 12, 2016 at 1:15 pm
        why are we crying on the shoulders of the US? Did France ask for US help when it was attacked? Unless and until you show to the world that you have an iron hand - get used for preachings from US
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          ashok
          Jan 12, 2016 at 6:37 am
          Given how much the US values its friendship with India as a long tem foil against China, it would probably have leaned more on stan to curtail terror originating from its soil if it could. The shelter provided to OBL suggests stan is not really a puppet. More like a petulant child the Americans have to keep in good humour.
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            Ramesh Nittoor
            Jan 12, 2016 at 12:43 am
            2004-2007 were the years of Dr. Condoleezza Rice, she became Sec of State in 2005. Her stated policy was to be guided by Indian take on the subcontinent. President Obama in his first term visit to China ended up conceding a larger role to China in subcontinental context, which Indian columnists had rightly protested. Thereafter came Asian pivot which led to inclusion of India in Asia-Pacific sphere. And as the dynamics of G-2 changed to becoming a contentious one, there is more of an activist role in the subcontinent. India, on a stand alone basis has been stoically suffering terror onslaughts since 1989. Given the backing of their all weather friend, India virtually could do nothing. That real discomfort has been felt in simultaneous working of two-nations relationships by US, is undeniable, but whether it is proving counter-productive is not known yet. The perception of US disengagement, which total silence could convey, may not be a good option for managing the disruptive change process in Indian subcontinent, given that the fourth player, one on Indian northern borders, can hold sway with just one relationship.
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            1. D
              David
              Jan 12, 2016 at 4:42 am
              Incoherent. ..
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              1. D
                David
                Jan 12, 2016 at 7:43 am
                Well said...very true. .
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                  rkannan
                  Jan 12, 2016 at 5:12 pm
                  Bush was the only American president who had a balanced approach towards South Asia. All other American presidents have been stani supporters. The only difference has been the degree of support to stan.
                  Reply
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