It was billed as a talk on Pakistan’s nuclear daddy and his propensity to spawn nuclear babies in families Americans don’t approve of. The title clearly said "Pakistan and proliferation" and the speaker was an insider, someone who had seen the gestation of the problem as a senior doctor on the job. The hall was packed with eager students, reporters, former and serving US officials and academics. Anticipation was high -- A.Q. Khan has been topic A in Washington for a month ever since the world learned of his hyper activity.
Robert Einhorn, who in his long years in the US government had dealt with Pakistan as assistant secretary for non-proliferation, was going to tell us what went wrong where and how it should be fixed. He was the man who had seen it up close. So imagine my surprise when Mr. Einhorn began his address by talking about India and how it is "one half of the regional squabble."
I did a double take -- surely I had come to the right place at the right time? Surely, it is Khan’s sins that had lately caused the world to shudder? It was, after all, his nuclear corner shop that was doing thriving retail business with franchises spread across Malaysia and Dubai. Don’t take my word for it -- American newspapers have diligently documented it all. Where did India fit in this lurid tale of graft and dangerous commerce? Where was the connection? The gratuitous mention made many in the audience uncomfortable.
But then I realized that in Mr. Einhorn’s mind as in many other minds that still make US policy, India and Pakistan are forever linked, no matter what the evidence. He admitted that even though his "Indian friends find it politically demeaning ... there are still good reasons to treat the India and Pakistan problems together." He blamed Pakistan’s original sin on India’s original sin -- "who introduced the bomb in the South Asian basket?"
Since he was so predictable on that one, may I be equally predictable and remind him -- as, no doubt, he has been reminded countless times -- that India got it because of China who got it because of France, Britain and the United States.
The substance of the speech did center around past American policy toward Pakistan and the admission that successive US administrations have had "a very tough time facing up to Pakistan’s proliferation problem." Yet, he gave his seal of approval to the current policy of "forget the past and look to the future". It prompted an old timer to ask what then was the difference between 1984, 1994 and 2004? Won't there always be some geo-political compulsion, some vital US interest to support the military and do wrong by the people of Pakistan? Indeed, the speaker expressed his full faith in the Pakistani military as the "only" institution worth its salt, dousing any democratic flame that might be burning inside someone.
But to come back to the American tendency to equate India and Pakistan -- does it show a narrowness of vision or a shortage of ideas?
This hyphenation of India and Pakistan has long aggravated Indians because it is so automatic, absurd and counterproductive and now, if I may, so yesterday. But it is entrenched in the American bureaucracy, programmed deep into the system. They can’t seem to shed it no matter what the evidence or the ground reality. Those who think differently aren’t always able or willing to voice their opinion. The status quo is easier to defend because new ideas can be risky. Besides, they require hard work to get past the many gate keepers.
Even now when Indo-US relations are "shining" somewhat, the working level bureaucrats can’t get over the old routine. The delay in approval from Washington in the Phalcon deal was primarily because of, well, what Pakistan would think One of the reasons for postponing the announcement of the Indo-US Strategic Partnership was American sensitivity to Islamabad’s sensitivities. From last Septemper, when Bush and Vajpayee could have jointly issued the statement in New York when they met for the UN General Assembly, it was postponed to January. As a result, Bush announced it from Mexico and Vajapayee a day later from New Delhi. It was neither simultaneous nor thundering in its impact. Of course, the hyphenators then decided they would offer the same partnership to Pakistan.
No problem there but at least recognise where the original compulsions reside. An Indian diplomat once joked "At least the Americans should find new terminology for the copy-cat groups they set up with Pakistan." After ten years of covering bilateral relations at different intervals, I can say this -- despite the obsessive insistence by spokesman that it is not a "zero-sum game" or that Washington treats its relations with India and Pakistan separately or that there has been a paradigm shift -- the worker bees in the US bureaucracy see the two countries as flip sides of the same coin. As Mr. Einhorn so steadily reminded us.
Interestingly, the Americans think the Indians are obsessed with Pakistan. During a meeting last year with a senior US official in charge of South Asia, I asked a few questions about US policy towards Pakistan and its failure to call terrorism against India terrorism in public. Surely, Indian civilians dying in continuing attacks in Kashmir deserve the same condemnation? US spokesmen would condemn the acts but never name Pakistan as they do in other cases -- the promptness is most apparent in the case of the Middle East. The official, with a big smile, asked why do Indian journalists only want to raise Pakistan?
I didn’t know whether the person was being extremely naïve or extremely sarcastic. Here is one reason -- thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in terrorist attacks by merchants of death coming from Pakistan. A fact that has now been admitted by Washington in public and by Islamabad. It was an obsession rooted in reality. Hopefully, it can be cured if the jihadi shops shut down.
But what of the American obsession?