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Changing ties

Updated Jan 17, 2017 04:14pm

THE Indo-US strategic partnership has been a source of constant tension in Pak-US ties in recent years. The US has pursued ‘de-hyphenation’ ie dealing with Islamabad and New Delhi relatively independently of each other. Central to this has been its hands-off approach on contentious Pak-India issues.

Donald Trump has excited the Pakistani policy space by hinting at his willingness to reconsider the US line. Pakistani officials in touch with Washington have been trying to determine if Trump will actually consider a more proactive effort to improve Pak-India ties.

While there’s no definitive answer, one can point to factors that will influence the Trump White House’s final policy. President Obama’s experience is a starting point. Candidate Obama was explicit in promising a regional approach to South Asia during the 2008 campaign. His reasoning confirmed an appreciation of the link between Pak-India tensions and their fallout on Afghanistan: to solve Afghanistan, one needs improvement on the Pak-India front. The Indians shot down his idea and US policy recoiled to its de-hyphenation default.

The Trump administration will confront the same set of challenges — and more.


A tougher US line is on the cards for Pakistan.


First, the Washington policy establishment is even more solidly committed to opposing US involvement in Pak-India issues than it was eight years ago. I have challenged the wisdom of this stance given that it contradicts US interest in South Asia. But few accept the proposition. Still, some in Pakistan hope that the Trump team may be less worried about defying Washington’s establishment. Perhaps. But a new administration with multiple policy positions seemingly at odds with this establishment would have to pick its battles carefully. Non-priorities like Pak-India may be ones to sacrifice.

Second, Trump’s position on China will complicate things. If Sino-US competition accentuates, India will be even more important as a counterweight to Beijing. India’s leverage over the US would increase, and it will demand that Washington put Pak-India back in cold storage. Pakistan’s backing of China would strengthen India’s case.

Third, Afghanistan will influence Washington’s approach. A tougher US line on the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network is on the cards. Pakistan’s likely resistance to fresh US demands to ‘do more’ would imply added tensions in ties, creating more space for critical voices in Washington to oppose US engagement on Pak-India issues.

Fourth, Pakistan continues to be its own worst enemy. The state’s policies on anti-India militant outfits can’t win it any champions. The world cannot be expected to reach but the most sceptical conclusion when it sees leaders of anti-India outfits floating around freely and when it finds the Pakistani state trying to avoid sincerely prosecuting those charged with committing terrorism in India. Perhaps nothing has aided India’s global push to isolate Pakistan more than the latter’s mishandling of the Mumbai trials.

Finally, any US leader must ask: what is the probability of success? Washington’s bureaucracy is hesitant to put the US president out on such issues without a real possibility of success. The prognosis for Kashmir is anything but. Indeed, it is no coincidence that while Pakistan’s position articulates the need for US involvement, it explains little on how this would lead to a realistic resolution. Even the most committed Trump White House won’t want to set itself up to fail.

What could change this calculus?

India’s management of its ties with the US is a factor to watch. New Delhi could damage its case by refusing to play counterweight to China. India has been hanging in the balance on the issue but that may not be good enough for Washington going forward, especially if Sino-US tensions heat up. Second, Prime Minister Modi has been presenting the US stance on his efforts to isolate Pakistan as a litmus test of US sincerity to Indo-US ties. If he overplays his hand, Washington may push back, and find more space to invest in trying to improve Pak-India ties.

Also, if Sino-US ties do not sour under Trump, the two sides can cooperate in the Af-Pak-India theatre. Both want a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan, absence of Pak-India crises (if not improved ties between the two), and economic integration in South Asia. Theoretically, they could coordinate a policy aimed at incentivising a change in policy attitudes regionally. The US could take the lead in convincing India and Afghanistan while China could work with Pakistan to achieve a transformed regional architecture.

That said, no one is likely to go to bat for Pakistan in Washington unless there is a discernible change in the former’s approach towards anti-India and anti-Afghan militancy. An absence of cross-border attacks with links to militant presence in Pakistan and a more visibly stringent approach towards these actors are necessary prerequisites for any US president to consider an out-of-the-box approach to Pakistan’s liking.

The writer is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C.

Published in Dawn, January 17th, 2017