May 31, 2020
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Three Meet On A Chessboard

With ties with America at its lowest, Pakistan looks for a role in the India-US bonhomie

Three Meet On A Chessboard
Photographs: Tribhuvan Tiwari, AP. Imaging by Leela
Three Meet On A Chessboard

When faced with its frequent shortcomings and exigencies, Pakistan has never had much qualms about employing one of statecraft’s oldest ruses: raising the bogey of an infernal enemy. The offending ogre, till recently, was India. Now, in what appears to be a strategic shift of remarkable magnitude, that appears to be changing. The state now tries to convince itself, and Pakistanis, that the United States heads its chart of betes noires.

“It is our establishment in its own flawed approach which has designated India as our enemy number one and today it is pushing the US into the same corner,” explains Mohammed Ziauddin, executive editor of the Express Tribune.

“There are no enemies except in war. There are only hostile and friendly states, and inter-state ties keep altering.”
Shireen Mazari, Foreign policy expert

As is well-known, Pakistan’s litany of worries is depressing—a measly literacy rate of thirty per cent, depleting natural resources, spiralling brain drain, not to mention the scourge of militancy and its various ills—daily bloodshed, the state’s pandering to jehadis, the largest number of journalists killed worldwide.... These, or their causes, have never been declared the enemy. It has always been a ‘foreign hand’ that’s held responsible, and it is jehad—a word freely used by the conservative right and the Deep State—that is deemed fit to rid society of its evils.

Now, as India and Pakistan take steps to foster neighbourly relations (mostly through proactive measures to boost trade) in an atmosphere more grounded in reality than old grudges, there is a constant fear that it would take an untoward incident for the N-armed states to regress to the knife’s edge hostility of the ’90s.

“Relations with India are better than they have been for decades. But the process of normalisation could be gravely disrupted if there is another terror attack in India by Pakistan-based perpetrators,” says Samina Ahmed, South Asia project director, International Crisis Group.

But better India-Pakistan ties are seen here against the backdrop of both countries’ changing relations with the US. Indeed, the warming up of relations between New Delhi and Washington, and the potential of India emerging as a regional superpower, is much the talking point—among politicians in their starched white shalwar-kamizes gliding past in their Prados, intellectuals in smoky cafes, and government servants and diplomats on the cocktail circuit.

As India’s bonhomie with the US comes with plummeting Pakistan-US relations and desperate, half-hearted measures to mend it, many think India must convey to Washington that problems in Pakistan can easily spill over the border and destabilise the region. That is, if India sincerely wants both countries to prosper, and wishes an end to Pakistan-based terrorism. This line of argument has it that further cutting of vital US aid for Pakistan, and supplying terrorism its bloody rationale—drone strikes and covert CIA operations in tribal areas—can only hurt everyone.

“A zero sum game mindset still prevails in India, which views US pressure on Pakistan as a plus for its goals.”
Mushahid Hussain Syed, secretary general, PML(N)

Traditionally, though both India and Pakistan have lobbied with the US against each other, a weak Pakistani state could turn out to be India’s worst enemy. The new thinking in Islamabad is that instead, the US can play a leading role in extirpating terrorism in the region if it stops playing its old ‘game’ of favourites.

PML(N) senator M. Enver Baig says that many Pakistanis feel “peace and prosperity” would accrue from a cordial relationship between countries in the region. Ahmed agrees with the prevalent argument that New Delhi could influence the US, “since India and the US share concerns about terror threats in and from the region, and Pakistan’s ability to take effective action against homegrown extremists and regional militants would help improve relations with India and the US.” He says action against jehadis would serve Pakistan’s interests since they are a greater threat to Pakistan.

The hawkish Shireen Mazari, security and foreign policy expert for Tehreek-e Insaf, tells Outlook that in interstate relations there are no “enemies” except in times of war—there are only hostile and friendly states and relationships keep altering in differing environments.

“So today, the US is strategically a hostile state for Pakistan as its strategic goals in this region differ from ours,” says Mazari. “India is seen as hostile because of outstanding political issues between the two sides which need to be resolved for a stable peace to be established. Otherwise, there are many commonalities of interests in terms of poverty reduction, better economic cooperation and fighting terrorism,” she adds.

Like other strategic thinkers, Mazari says Indo-Pak relations have to improve because of strategic and economic compulsions. She says it is unfortunate that India still goads the US to take a harder line towards Pakistan.

Many in Pakistan feel India should tell the US that unrest in Pakistan can easily spill over and destabilise the region.

However, senator Mushahid Hussain Syed, secretary general of PML(N), says India must stop obsessing about Pakistan, which would provide more clarity to their policies. “Having discovered that the US is reaching out to them as part of a broader Asian policy of ‘containment of China’, India won’t do anything to undermine this blossoming romance,” says Syed. “Unfortunately, a zero-sum-game mindset still prevails among the Indian establishment, which views US pressure on Pakistan as a plus. In his Engaging India, Strobe Talbott talks about how, during India-US negotiations after the 1998 nuclearisation of South Asia (before Kargil), Indians were so obsessed by Pakistan that the Americans had to virtually force them to look at regional and nuclear issues in a broader context, not just through a Pakistan-specific prism,” he adds.

Others, like lawyer Anees Jillani, who follows India closely, disagrees with the idea that India can be made to reason with the US on Pakistan’s behalf for the benefit of all parties.

“The question of Pakistan influencing India does not arise. All countries, including India and the US, take steps to serve their national interests. Why would India listen to Pakistan on this issue or any other? Many of us confuse our individual friendships and interactions with each other as part of the inter-state bonhomie. The two are separate. Personal relations may be perfect as we have lot in common but national interests clash most of the time,” he says.

And, when India-Pakistan relations come up, can the ‘K’ word be far behind? Jillani, the only one who brings the topic up, says it is too serious an issue for Pakistan to ignore.

Whether relations improve with India and nosedive with the US, says Jillani, “the Kashmir issue has to be resolved. A huge chunk of territory was usurped with the plea that a plebiscite would be organised.... Now the matter of a plebiscite is not mentioned. The nation is united on this and it is not possible for any government to ignore it. Many Pakistanis may resent the military’s stranglehold, which itself has fed upon the continuous dispute with India. Even that issue is linked with the Kashmir resolution.”

Foretelling relations between states can be a case of navigating by dead reckoning. With India and Pakistan, the path lies through high optimism and hard pragmatism.

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