The White House decision to approve the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan has once again sparked an interest on the nature of America's role in the subcontinent. While Indian observers have unanimously expressed their discontent, there is no serious attempt to deconstruct US policy. The reaction is a combination of frustration and irritation softened by a confidence that India is strong enough to take these recurring set backs in its stride. Some shift the focus on Pakistan's ability to manipulate a "misguided" Washington. Such views are common but betray a naiveté. The dearth of serious historical studies on US's South Asia policies remains curiously stark considering India's entire military machine including its nuclear weapons complex has been erected to deal with the consequences of US involvement in subcontinental geopolitics.
There are two core assumptions that shape Indian thinking on US policies in South Asia. The first one is that Washington's decision to prop up Pakistan in the 1950s was entirely shaped by Cold War geopolitics and America's desperation for allies in the Sino-Soviet underbelly. The second assumption is that with the disappearance of the Soviet Union, US policy has shifted to one of de-hyphenation since the 1990s. What do the archives and other empirical material reveal on these core assumptions?
Let's first scrutinize the idea that US involvement in South Asia was primarily a Cold War policy with India suffering the brunt of collateral damage in a larger chess game. A fascinating State Department document from April 3, 1950 reveals early US thinking towards this area. A little context is appropriate. In the early months of 1950, India and Pakistan were in the midst of a serious crisis after a large exodus of refugees from East Pakistan into India. Threat perceptions were heightened on both sides with many expecting an outbreak of hostilities. Although the crisis was ultimately defused, it provoked internal deliberations within the US. The State Department document titled, "Policy of the United States with respect to Pakistan" was issued while Nehru and Liaquat Ali were engaged in discussions to resolve the flare-up in East Pakistan.
The broad aim of the authors is to highlight Pakistan's viability as a state and argue for a more proactive policy of economic and military support to the ruling regime. "Pakistan will emerge after India, as the strongest power between Turkey and Japan on the periphery of Asia." Senior policymakers are urged to take Pakistan's request for "military assistance," first made in 1948 and 1949, more seriously. "Pakistan authorities have informally but repeatedly declared their desire to associate themselves more closely with the US in long range defense planning…the final political orientation of Pakistani leaders will be influenced by the responses they receive to these requests." Drawing attention to Pakistani public opinion, which perceived an uncertainty regarding US intentions, the authors note: "It is becoming increasingly necessary, therefore, to remind the Pakistanis that we are neither pro-Indian…nor anti-Muslim." This was of course an exaggeration because Washington was actually playing a role in buttressing Pakistan's case on the Kashmir dispute both in the Security Council and in interactions with Indian officials.
The authors also note that US and UK policies towards South Asia are convergent and ought to be coordinated better: "We believe that Pakistan is more likely to remain closely associated with us and the other western democracies if it remains a member of the Commonwealth, we want Pakistan-UK ties to remain close and friendly, and we therefore avoid any actions which might weaken these…comprehensive high-level discussions should be held with the UK to clarify the extent to which our respective policies toward Pakistan and South Asia afford a basis for cooperative effort in the area." This is interesting because right until the mid-1950s, many Indian policymakers including Nehru continued to perceive a subtle competition between the UK and US in South Asia as a possible means to shape western policy in South Asia.
The authors then go on to underscore not only the advantage of encouraging Pakistan's quest for a role in West Asia but the logic of shaping South Asia's balance of power itself: "it may in time become desirable to critically review our concept that Pakistan's destiny is or should be bound with India…There is reason to question whether solidarity with India will ever be achieved…The schism which led to the breakup of the old India was very deep…Moreover, the vigor and methods which have characterised India's execution of its policy of consolidating the princely states, and its inflexible attitude with regard to Kashmir, may indicate national traits which in time, if not controlled, could make India Japan's successor in Asiatic imperialism. In such a circumstance a strong Muslim bloc under the leadership of Pakistan, and friendly to the US, might afford a desirable balance of power in South Asia."
It should be apparent that such geopolitical constructions reflected an early impulse and strategy to profoundly shape the subcontinental balance rather than simply a narrow transactional search for accessing bases and facilities for Soviet containment goals. In 1954, these images found concrete expression in an agreement that laid the foundation for US strategic commitment to Pakistan's political, economic and military security. But the Soviet threat was merely a fig leaf to produce a regional order that would be aligned to US geostrategy in the wider area. By the late 1950s, as former diplomat Y.D. Gundevia records in his memoirs, Pakistan "was equipped with an army which could easily match anything and everything that India could put into the field."
Perhaps, nothing underscores US balance of power policies more than the qualitative nature of military assistance. US documents are revealing. In a December 1963 cable to Lyndon Johnson, Chester Bowles, a former envoy to India, records: "The very nature of the highly sophisticated and mobile equipment which we have given Pakistan, equipment which is much better adapted to fighting Indians on the north Indian plains than to fighting the Chinese and Russians in the Himalayas and Hindu Kush". As another senior US official Robert Komer records in a April 1966 cable to Johnson: "we have built up Pakistan's own independent position and sinews—to the tune of almost $5 billion in support. We've protected Pakistan against India."
How can we understand this policy of India's containment? We are so accustomed to interpreting US policies in South Asia as part of a global geostrategy that most Indian strategists are unable to scrutinize or accept the regional dimension, which has a logic of its own. Baldev Raj Nayar is one of the few scholars to have engaged with these questions in his 1976 book, American Geopolitics and India. Nayar argues that the balance of power "is a fundamental, unalterable principle of US foreign policy…This principle is directed not only at the global military equilibrium…but also at equilibrium in regional contexts. This is so because the global reach of American power makes equilibrium in the different regions of the world of strategic concern to the US and also because the global equilibrium itself is linked to equilibrium at the regional level."
In South Asia, US "military containment flowed from the very logic of the encounter between a global power and a middle power. It was but a specific manifestation in the South Asian subcontinent of a more general principle…All this was over and beyond the containment directed at the Communist powers." For Nayar, the very quest to be an independent centre of power, as India has sought from the outset, is simply incongruent with America's role and geostrategy. "This policy is often referred to as maintaining regional balances, but so expressed it suggests that the US is doing something that is rather natural, merely upholding something that is given by the nature of the situation. In fact, what the US does is to create a new balance which serves to neutralize the independent but non-cooperative middle power and then attempts to maintain that balance."
All this might astonish or even shock the more ahistorical observers of South Asia. Let's now turn to the second assumption behind Indian thinking, namely the notion of de-hyphenation? Has US's post-Cold War South Asia geostrategy fundamentally broken with its historical and conceptual framework?
The post-2001 phase is interesting because we can examine US regional policies in a vastly different context, and, in the backdrop of improving Indo-US ties since the late 1990s. By 2004, largely because of the Afghan war, Pakistan had regained its major non-NATO ally status providing it with "diplomatic prestige and greater access to American military technology, surplus defense equipment and training". For Washington, the India side of the South Asia equation needed a boost to prevent a slump into previous historical patterns of Indo-US relations.
In fact, a former State Department official and then advisor to Condoleezza Rice, Philip Zelikow recently disclosed that the initial spur for the timing of the Indo-US nuclear deal was the US decision to supply F-16s to Pakistan. "What's the side thing we can do with India that will mitigate the impact or the decision to go ahead with F-16s to Pakistan?" As Zelikow remarks, a decision was taken to cut the "Gordian knot" and "take the nuclear issue head on". From the US perspective, the nuclear deal was at one level about deflecting recurring Indian concerns and political backlash to US's Pakistan policy, and, at a more ambitious level about shaping India's rise, the texture and future geopolitical direction of its regional and global roles.
Again, to quote Zelikow, the deal was a "long-term geopolitical bet" on India "becoming a great power" that would "shape the future of the Eurasian landmass in a positive direction." "What we were trying to set up for India was a diplomatic revolution in India." The lead Indian negotiator, former Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran recently reflected, "The deal was made possible by the growing strategic congruence between the two countries". But if we dig a little deeper, we'll notice there's more nuance to that observation.
The US did not really change its orientation or basic geopolitical image—if anything its role and self-image of a preponderant global superpower became much stronger since the collapse of the Soviet Union and through the 1990s and 2000s. The fundamental change was primarily on the Indian side. It was India's own re-orientation and its changing conception of regional security and order, and, how it began to perceive US-Pakistan relations. The US, on the other hand, did not diminish Pakistan in its regional policy nor did it alter its commitment to the Pakistani Army. It actually strengthened that historical pattern after 2001. Between 2002 and 2015, Pakistan received over $31 billion in US aid of which $17 billion flowed towards buttressing military capabilities.
This same period also witnessed the high point of Indo-US ties. Obviously, the de-hyphenation has occurred largely in India's geopolitical image, for Delhi began to overlook the US-Pakistan equation by focusing primarily on its own narrow bilateral equation with Washington.
Nayar's conceptual framework can also explain this change in the post-Cold War. Once the US "has been successful in creating the desirable strategic environment", it "has been willing to discuss and negotiate on other issues of cooperation with the former non-cooperative middle power. Such an accommodative attitude on behalf of the US does not reflect a change of course on its part, but is conditional upon acceptance by the middle power of the new strategic environment and indeed heralds the success of the policy of containment." Indeed, since the early 2000s, India has chosen to de-hyphenate the reality of the US-Pakistan alliance from US-India ties and ignore the consequences to the South Asian balance of power.
Regardless of how we define or imagine US geopolitical images towards this area, the persistence of a particular construction of the regional chessboard remains entrenched in American strategic consciousness and manifests in its regional statecraft. Changing power balances and re-alignments elsewhere have reinforced rather than disrupted this basic framework. Delhi would do well to craft its geostrategies in light of this reality.
Zorawar Daulet Singh is a research scholar at King's College London
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