US wades into India-Pakistan dialogue

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, talks with the Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh at the Nuclear Summit in Seoul, South Korea, March, 27, 2012.

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, talks with the Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh at the Nuclear Summit in Seoul, South Korea, March, 27, 2012.

Three years and four months after the horrendous terrorist strikes in the western Indian city of Mumbai in November 2008, Washington has dropped a diplomatic bombshell in New Delhi.

The visiting United States Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman announced in Delhi on Monday Washington’s decision to put a bounty of 10 million dollars on the chief of Pakistan-based Islamist organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa, Hafiz Saeed, whom New Delhi regards as the evil genius who masterminded the Mumbai attacks that killed 170 people.

Welcome to the fantasyland of US-India-Pakistan triangle. Technically, Washington has acted in pursuit of the fact that the 170 people killed included six Americans. No doubt, Saeed has been on India’s list of most-wanted terrorist and has been named a global terrorist in 2008. But he has been roaming free inside Pakistan, often holding public rallies and giving TV interviews.

Sherman’s announcement is a huge ‘PR scoop’ for the US public diplomacy. The fact that she went public at an elite gathering of Indian strategic gurus underscores that Washington sought the optimal spin-off in the realm of US-India relationship, which has been lately somewhat under the weather.

The US-India relationship is in a state of drift, meandering aimlessly. The fizz has gone out of the US-India nuclear deal of 2008. There is no possibility that in a near future American companies would secure any ‘nuclear business’ in India by selling reactors. The American companies won’t enter the Indian market unless New Delhi amends the Nuclear Liability Law to suit their interests but the likelihood of the Indian government complying is also virtually zero in the present climate of political fluidity in India.

Meanwhile, the last thing the two capitals would have wanted was a ruckus over Iran, but one is threatening. India stubbornly refuses to seek exemption from the US’ sanctions against Iran and is insisting that it only abides by the sanctions imposed by the United Nations. Whereas Washington makes threatening noises now and then and New Delhi seems to take them in its stride and carry on with the business of its relationship with Tehran. All that Washington could claim is that it has to some extent retarded the India-Iran economic cooperation.

One main objective of Sherman’s visit was to harmonize India’s Iran policy. She acknowledged publicly that US did not intend to jeopardize India’s energy security, but then went on to imply that Washington expected New Delhi to join the West’s attempts to pressure Iran.

Only last week India joined the other BRICS countries to warn the US and its allies about the “disastrous consequences” of a conflict with Iran and opposing fresh sanctions against Iran by stating that US domestic laws should not lead to volatility in oil process that may adversely affect the growth of developing countries.

Thus, by playing the ‘Saeed card’, Washington would have hoped to generate a ‘feel-good’ ambience to the US-India partnership. Indeed, the 2008 Mumbai attacks strike a painful chord in the Indian psyche and the US decision to put Saeed on par with the most dreaded terrorists on Washington’s watch list – alongside Taliban supremo Mullah Omar, al-Qaeda’s Iraq hand Abu Du’a and its Iran-based ‘facilitator’ Yasin al Suri – will go down well in the Indian opinion.

However, the timing of the US announcement on Saeed will raise eyebrows. It comes hardly five days before a likely meeting on April 8 between the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh and the Pakistani president Asif Zardari who is visiting India on a ‘private visit’.

There is much excitement already in the diplomatic circles that India-Pakistan dialogue might get a boost during the forthcoming meeting between the two leaders – even paving the way for a long-awaited visit by the Indian prime minister to Pakistan in a near future. Indeed, the climate of India-Pakistan ties has distinctly improved in the most recent years, bringing hope that a new phase in the relationship may be commencing.

Equally, there is peace and calm on the India-Pakistan border and the graph of violence in Jammu & Kashmir is dropping visibly. Pakistan’s threat perceptions are increasingly from the US and a sure sign of it is the bold decision that Islamabad took to accord Most-Favored Nation status to India to expand the trade ties. Economic cooperation is not only the guarantee of peace but it is also the strongest signal in the India-Pakistan context of a genuine willingness to leave the past behind and move forward in the relationship. On the crucial issue of Afghanistan, neither India nor Pakistan is exacerbating the mutual suspicions regarding each other’s intentions.

Suffice to say, Sherman’s surprise announcement takes India back to one of the darkest chapters of its troubled relationship with Pakistan. The big question is what is the US’ game plan in resurrecting at this very point the images from a gory past?

Put plainly, India-Pakistan relationship is steadily acquiring a momentum that stands in sharp contrast with the chill in US-Pakistan ties. If Washington always claimed to be the godfather of India-Pakistan dialogue, that claim is patently unsustainable today. New Delhi and Islamabad are crafting their dialogue on their own and incrementally giving substance to it without any third party facilitating the process. Indeed, with the huge debris of the Afghan war swarming the US-Pakistan relationship, Washington cannot even pretend that is capable of fostering amity between Pakistan and India.

Not only that, the normalization of India-Pakistan relations would give Islamabad greater leverage to drive a hard bargain with Washington in the upcoming reset of the US-Pakistan relationship. The heart of the matter is that the US is running out of levers to pressure Pakistan. The growing ‘strategic autonomy’ that Pakistan is showing vis-à-vis the US is an altogether startling new phenomenon in the US-Pakistan relationship. And it is hurting like hell at this juncture when Pakistan’s optimal cooperation is a dire necessity for Washington while navigating through the Afghan endgame, especially during the tricky US troop pullout.

Simply put, Sherman has put a spanner in the works of the India-Pakistan wheel just when it is showing promising signs of new dynamics. It is not an isolated act, either. In the recent months, almost in direct proportion to the breakdown of Washington’s equations with Islamabad through the past year and more, the US officials are leaving no stone unturned to inveighle India into the snake pit of the US-Pakistan relationship.

Curiously, even as Sherman was speaking in New Delhi about Saeed, US defence secretary Leon Panetta told the CBC TV in an interview that although in many ways US and Pakistan have a common cause in fighting terrorism, “the problem is that they [Pakistanis] view their position in that part of the world as one that is threatened by India,…how they’re going to be viewed in that region, what kind of position are they going to have for the future. And as result of that, sometimes we get very mixed messages from Pakistan as to just exactly where they’re going to be.”

What Panetta meant was that unfortunately, a core issue impeding the US-Pakistan relationship is Islamabad’s threat perceptions of India, and but for the India-Pakistan tensions – and Saeed is incidentally a key element here – Washington would have had a far easier time persuading the Pakistani military leadership to cooperate in the war on terrorism. If Panetta is right, logically, Sherman shouldn’t have done on Monday what she ably did, namely, subtly queered the pitch of India-Pakistan discord by conveying the message to New Delhi that screwing up the Pakistani deep state is in the common interests of the two countries and it could even be a fruitful US-India joint enterprise – and that too just as India-Pakistan ties are looking up and the leaderships of the two countries are mulling over how to give fresh impetus to the bilateral relationship.

You can’t have it both ways. Either Panetta is right or Sherman is right – not both. 

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