It’s a pity that @narendramodi or @SushmaSwaraj don’t follow @MadamSecretary, the serial on the CBS US television network that tracks the life and times of a fictional US secretary of state. Episodes follow crises the US must get involved in around the globe, including, you’ve guessed it, India and Pakistan, Russia and Libya and other hotspots that blow up with unfailing regularity.
Elizabeth McCord (the actress @TeaLeoni) must deal with despots and dictators and assassinations and dirty bombs without losing her cool. Of course she comes out on top most of the time, as is to be expected, but its how she gets there that’s interesting. Madam Secretary is successful precisely because she has no qualms in supping with the devil.
This ability to change your mind mid-sentence must separate the big girls – or big boys, as in the case of @realDonaldTrump — from the rest of us mortals. As his Friday night tweet demonstrating an about-turn on his Pakistan policy showed, the US has both the power and the inclination to get what it wants and high moral ground be damned.
The US president’s complimentary tweet came in the wake of a Pakistan army operation only a day ago, against the Haqqani Network terrorist group in Pakistan’s own northern, restive province Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, in which a US-Canadian couple and their children (born in captivity no less) were rescued, that too after five years.
See the coincidence ?
Several Pakistan-watchers will tell you that the case of Joshua Boyle and Caitlin Coleman, Canadian and US nationals respectively, is similar to one Osama bin Laden who was found living a stone’s throw away from the Pakistan military academy in Abbotabad, barely a 100 km from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad.
Joshua and Caitlin were kidnapped in Afghanistan by a terrorist group in October 2012 and were found in Pakistan’s neighbouring Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province yesterday. Just like Osama, there is no way the Pakistan military didn’t know that a White, Anglo-Saxon family, with three kids no less, were living in a Haqqani Network camp inside Pakistan.
As @MadamSecretary will tell you again and again, the name of the game is leverage. And Pakistan has dollops of it. Even though the world’s most powerful leader, Donald Trump, told the world only a few weeks ago that US policy towards Pakistan was going to change – and India crowed delightedly when he did – fact is that the US isn’t doing what it is in the badlands of Afghanistan-Pakistan for India’s national interest, but its own.
Speaking in Pennsylvania on Friday, Trump complimented Pakistan’s cooperation on the Caitlin-Joshua rescue and took credit for being much more tough on Rawalpindi.
“The Pakistani government’s cooperation is a sign that it is honouring America’s wish that it do more to provide security in the region,” he said. “They worked very hard on this, and I believe they’re starting to respect the United States again,” he added.
Only a month ago, Trump had accused Pakistan of “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting. But that will have to change, and that will change immediately,” he had said. The Pakistanis reacted badly to the Trump speech and even cancelled a scheduled visit by Lisa Curtis, Trump’s top official on South Asia in the White House.
Curtis and her team finally landed in Islamabad a couple of days ago. If you watch @MadamSecretary closely, you will come to the quick conclusion that Curtis exercised leverage to get the US-Canadian couple out. But the fact is, so did the Pakistanis. By rescuing Caitlin and Joshua and their kids, Islamabad got Trump to eat his own words, and showed the rest of the world that they were able to do so.
Moral of the story for India? Like Trump learnt quickly, “never say never” can never be the policy slogan for any country. Modi’s refusal to talk to Pakistan unless all cross-border terrorism ceases is good rhetoric, but it cannot work because Pakistan holds several cards – also known as leverage – precisely because of its geostrategic location as Afghanistan’s neighbour.
Moreover, by keeping up an intimate relationship relationship with various militant groups, from the Taliban to the Haqqani Network, Rawalpindi knows beautifully how to extract a price from the worst bargain. It has been doing this for several decades. The Caitlin-Joshua rescue was hardly surprising.
As for @narendramodi, he needs better advice both from @SushmaSwaraj and Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar on how to deal with Pakistan. As the bigger, and presumably, smarter neighbour next door, India should have anticipated the twists and turns in this volatile snakes-and-ladders.
But the prime minister seems, unfortunately, boxed into his rhetoric by his own top diplomatic advisors. India’s leadership doesn’t need an American TV network — @MadamSecretary — to remind it of the old adage that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. Still, there would be no harm watching, especially if South Block seems to have lost its way.