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Hype and hyphen

Pakistan wants to rehyphenate US policy in the neighbourhood. Why we must not let ourselves down....

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
March 27, 2010 2:25:26 am

The US-Pakistan strategic dialogue in Washington marks the formal beginning of the endgame on the Afghan war. The Americans are searching for a grand bargain with Pakistan to help destroy Al-Qaeda and its proliferations and to conclusively break their link with the Taliban. Total destruction of the Taliban is no longer on the agenda. If the Obama administration can report success on this,it can claim victory and bring back most of its forces from Afghanistan in a victory of sorts rather than in a retreat in defeat. A bit like the story unfolded finally in Iraq.

The Pakistanis know this but somehow seem impatient. As if this is their one great,last opportunity and as if Brand Pakistan will go out of fashion. Let us,for a bit,look at the picture from Pakistani eyes,rather than ours. We can then see why the Pakistanis nurse grievances for the Americans. They see 1965,and even 1971,despite the Kissinger-Nixon side-show,as Great American Betrayals of an ally they were treaty-bound to protect. In the fifties they entered into military-strategic nuptials with the Americans on the pretext of fighting communism. They are,to date,bewildered as to why the Americans took that so much on face value that they objected to the use of military hardware gifted by them against India in 1965,and then banned any fresh supplies in punishment. This,the Pakistanis believe,hurt them grievously in 1971. In spite of the short but spectacular “tilt” in 1971,Washington dumped a defeated,dismembered Pakistan that was no longer of use. Worse,it was led by Bhutto whose fake,leftist,anti-American demagoguery was only matched by his genuine love for aristocratic,decadent high life.

It took the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to make the Americans re-discover Pakistan. Remember,this came just when the first post-1971 US-Indian warmth was beginning,with Jimmy Carter becoming the first US president to visit (Morarji Desai’s) India in 15 years. This was the peak of the Cold War: the Americans,as also the Chinese,were desperate to trap the Soviets in Afghanistan and Pakistan became an indispensable ally. Zia-ul-Haq,who was till now being charged with the murder of Bhutto and Pakistan’s constitution,was hailed as the second stalwart ally,after Ayub in the sixties. Aid,both military and civil,flowed in again. And then what happened? As soon as the Soviets left in 1993,the US began lecturing Pakistan on democracy and moderation while warming up to India. Again,Kargil and the Clinton visit to the subcontinent both convinced the Pakistanis — with good reason — of an American tilt away,towards India. Bush only leaned further in the same direction,and while the post-9/11 turnaround helped Musharraf gain legitimacy,and Pakistan strategic relevance,India had now broken away as a strategic and politico-economic entity.

To sum up,therefore,the story from the Pakistanis’ eyes reads as follows: when the Americans have a strategic purpose of their own,they embrace us. The moment it is over,they go right back where their hearts and long-term interests belong,to India. When they need us,they give us some hardware,and then they tell us not to use it against India and hit us with moratoriums. The Americans can’t be so delusional as to believe that we need their weapons to fight their battles against communist expansion,Al-Qaeda-Taliban or whoever threatens them next. Our (Pakistanis) strategic concerns are not the same as theirs (Americans). And unless they accept that India is the central,and mostly only,focus of our strategy,they are dishonourable,seasonal,disloyal cheating allies.

This is what the Pakistani establishment is hoping to change this time round. The stakes for Obama in Afghanistan are much higher than for Reagan and Bush Sr in the last jehad. Also,the American dependence on Pakistan is total this time round. If reports of the talks so far are accurate,the Pakistanis have almost got the Americans to confess and apologise for their past “betrayals”. The question now,particularly for India,is how the Americans will compensate Pakistan for these let-downs of the past,and what guarantees they can offer for the future.

It is for this reason that the Pakistanis are approaching this as some kind of a strategic clearance sale and attempting to fill their shopping cart as high as possible with goodies,discounted as well as freebies. This is the exact meaning of their 56-page list of demands that preceded this dialogue. It’s as if Brand Pakistan or its strategic currency will go out of fashion the moment the military part of the Af-Pak project is over.

Should India worry? Our responses so far have been generally measured. This is welcome. It is natural for the Pakistanis to demand everything we have,the nuclear deal being one. Deep down,armaments apart,what the Pakistanis wish for most dearly is the rehyphenation of American policy in the subcontinent. It is almost as unlikely a possibility as the Americans delivering anything on Kashmir to anybody. It is for us,therefore,to move with caution and avoid any of the traditional neuroses. An increased American engagement with Pakistan,and I dare to say even a US nuclear deal with them,may be beneficial for us,as it forces greater transparency in the Pakistani nuclear establishment and moderates its militaristic vision.

And of course we have to start making use of the new strategic space of our own,particularly after that much-celebrated de-hyphenation. Only we must not let ourselves down. We look stupid protesting any arms consignment to Pakistan when we fail to buy even one of our desperately needed and budgeted artillery guns just because some dim-witted CBI director produced a list of charges against one likely vendor on an unsigned sheet of plain paper. We have to fix that nonsense,because big powers must learn to look after their own security. Similarly,India should exploit this expanding strategic space to look more carefully at the world besides America and terrorism. The continuing vote against Iran at the IAEA is principled and should continue. But we have to be less shy of negotiating energy deals with Iran,giving visas to its students,even launching its civilian satellites. The Af-Pak endgame in Washington also signals an opportunity for India to dehyphenate its own America policy.

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