Rethinking the Pakistan Plan

Rethinking the Pakistan Plan

Mini Teaser: U.S.-Pakistani relations are in crisis. Strategic fear of India prevents Pakistan from bending to U.S. demands. Easing India-Pakistan tensions could change the dynamics of the U.S.-Pakistan alliance.

by Author(s): Amitai Etzioni

Settling the India-Pakistan conflict would remove a major reason Pakistan is keen to control the future government of Afghanistan and ensure that its allies in the Taliban would be a major force in Kabul’s leadership. Currently, Pakistan fears that Afghanistan will tilt toward India and India will use Afghanistan as a platform for a spy network. Islamabad also fears that because Pakistan is such a narrow country, if an Indian attack were launched from the east, its troops might need to retreat into Afghanistan. If India and Afghanistan were allies, Pakistan would be forced to fight on two fronts in the event of conflict. In addition, it worries about India stirring up ethnic tensions in Afghanistan that could spill over Pakistani borders. (India has historically supported ethnic minorities, which could create conflict with the Pashtun majorities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.) Islamabad has also accused New Delhi of using its influence in Kabul to provide funding and training to terrorist groups such as the Baluchistan Liberation Army in Pakistan’s tribal areas with the goal of destabilizing the Pakistani government.

Normalized relations between India and Pakistan would also bring considerable economic benefits to both. For example, India needs cement, and Pakistan’s factories are close to the border. Currently, bilateral trade is a meager $2 billion a year (compared to India’s $60 billion annual trade with China, for example).

Visionaries even see a Pakistan and India following the example of France and Germany. After fighting each other for generations and causing more harm to each other than the two Asian nations, Paris and Berlin reconciled and formed a productive union. If Pakistan and India could one day find their way to such a union, they might even be able to scale back their military nuclear programs and join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which would do wonders for the treaty’s weakened state.

State Department sources privately confirm that “back-channel” negotiations are taking place between India and Pakistan and that the United States is fostering this dialogue. But the West needs to invest much more in them than it currently does. For instance, taking into account that Pakistan is worried about its lack of strategic depth and India’s conventional superiority, the West might favor positioning peacekeeping forces on the new borders, much as it did in Korea’s DMZ and previously in Berlin. These forces would be positioned only after a settlement was reached, and they should include troops from nations such as Indonesia and Nigeria, combined with forces from nations such as Canada and Norway, possibly with logistical and intelligence support by the United States.

Renegotiation of the U.S.-India civil-nuclear agreement seems a particularly good place to start. India (and Pakistan) was for decades barred from nuclear trade with the West because it did not join the NPT. The Bush administration moved in the opposite direction, providing American aid to India’s civilian nuclear-energy program and expanding U.S.-India cooperation in nuclear technology. This assistance was to be used only for nonmilitary purposes. However, by allowing the sale of uranium to India for its civilian reactors, the United States enabled India to move its existing supply of uranium to military use. (Before that, Indian power plants were operating at reduced capacity to make more nuclear bombs.) The Bush administration rationalized these steps by predicting they would improve relations with India, which it considered the West’s best counterbalance against China. However, rather than fostering a closer relationship between New Delhi and Washington, the treaty has been highly controversial in India. It took years of wrangling before New Delhi approved the final piece of the deal in August 2010.

In response to the Bush administration’s deal with India, Pakistan increased its nuclear program on its own by rapidly expanding its plutonium production, and China granted Pakistan two more reactors as part of an agreement parallel to the U.S.-India one. (Some may argue that the China-Pakistan deal was under way before the U.S.-India one. Although this is true, the China-Pakistan deal was not implemented until after the U.S.-India one.) The result is a case study in how the expansion of nuclear facilities in one country can spur the expansion of nuclear facilities in another—exactly the course that should be avoided. Given the great resistance to the nuclear agreement in India by the opposition and major segments of the public, Washington may find India quite willing to renegotiate the agreement. Scaling it back seems a particularly promising way to show that the West is no longer tilting toward India, thus perhaps convincing Pakistan that it need not expand its nuclear program. That would greatly ease tensions between the two nations.

It isn’t likely, however, that such moves will take place—or succeed if they do take place—unless the West engages in a major geopolitical reassessment of India. That in turn requires examining the West’s future relationship with China.

THE UNITED States believes it must court India to balance China. That is a major reason why Washington has not pressured India more heavily to come to terms with Pakistan and why Pakistan fears, not without reason, that America is turning toward India. During much of the Cold War, the West viewed India as leaning toward the communist bloc and Pakistan as a staunch anticommunist ally. Pakistan played a major role in helping the United States drive the USSR out of Afghanistan. Over the decades, Pakistan received considerable amounts of foreign and military aid as well as equipment and training from Washington. India, meanwhile, was largely spurned.

By 2000, however, the United States was increasingly concerned about the rise of China as a superpower and seeking ways to “balance” it. Washington believed that New Delhi could play a key role in this new geopolitical lineup. Additionally, India, as a democratic and economically successful nation, was held up as a countermodel to the Chinese brand of state capitalism, which had growing appeal in the Third World. As a result, the United States tilted toward India by expanding bilateral cooperation and investment in a number of areas. Washington capped these overtures by signing the landmark nuclear-cooperation deal in 2008.

Thus, just as it is difficult to see an end to the war in Afghanistan—and the neutralization of the Taliban sanctuaries more broadly—without a shift in the policies of Pakistan, it is equally difficult to envisage such changes occurring without shifts in the Indo-Pakistani relationship. The same holds for “rebalancing” the military-civilian relationships within Pakistan. In other words, instead of focusing mainly on what the West can gain from Pakistan or give to Pakistan, Washington should focus on the impact that changes in the U.S.-India relationship would have on Pakistan’s inner balance and its Afghanistan policies. The place to start is for the United States to reassess the geopolitical role it assigned to India as a China balancer.

This reassessment should center on whether China needs to be balanced; the timing of such balancing, if it is needed; and the costs of casting India in this role. Much has been made of the rise of China and the decline of the United States. Such commentary tends to overlook that any American decline starts from a very high level of military and economic prowess while China is rising from a rather low level. True, the size of the Chinese economy is expected to reach that of the United States by 2035. However, given that China has four times more people to feed, house and otherwise service, the more relevant figure is income per capita. China’s income per capita is quite low, about $7,400.

Assessments of China’s military power vary considerably. However, most experts agree that it would take at least two decades before China could win a major war against the United States. Many of China’s latest military acquisitions are either upgraded knockoffs of old Soviet equipment or purchased from the former USSR—hardly state-of-the-art technologies. Others are unlikely to achieve full operational capability for years, including the headline-grabbing Chinese stealth fighter, the J-20. And perhaps the greatest perceived Chinese military threat, antiaircraft (“carrier-killer”) ballistic missiles, have yet to be publicly tested over water against a maneuvering target. China’s yet-to-be-deployed first aircraft carrier was purchased from Ukraine in the 1990s. (The United States has eleven.) Beijing’s newest attack jet, the J-15, is an updated version of a Soviet one. It carries less fuel than a U.S. one and, as a takeoff method, requires flying off a ski-jump-style runway. When Russia refused to sell China nuclear submarines, Beijing attempted to build its own, producing subs that turned out to be noisier than those built by the Soviets thirty years ago.

Some hawks in the United States use the term “China hedge” to argue that the U.S. military ought to prepare for war with China, just in case it turns out to become a major adversary decades from now. However, given that Beijing will not pose a serious threat to the United States for decades, Washington can engage in the opposite kind of China hedge: an attempt to build peaceful cooperation, a case outlined in Henry Kissinger’s 2011 book on China.

Image: Pullquote: Suggestions for the West to pressure Pakistan in various ways to change its behavior ignore the reality that the West needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs the West.Essay Types: Essay