President Obama gave little away when he voiced his support for India’s membership on the UN Security Council. He and his advisors know very well that considerable time will have to pass before China is prepared to permit India to join this exclusive Club of Five. And, of course, there will be other claimants, Japan, Germany and Brazil to name but three, who will do all in their power to ensure that India is only admitted to the Security Council if they are as well.
What the President really should have done was to have announced that henceforth, Washington would coordinate its Afghanistan policy with New Delhi, no less than with Islamabad. India’s relations with Afghanistan go back at least as far as Pakistan’s; indeed, Kabul traditionally sought to avoid too close an identification with either of South Asia’s rivals. Moreover, virtually from the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, India offered all forms of support to the new Karzai regime, including trucks carrying food, which were not permitted to transit Pakistan. When India opened two new consulates in Afghanistan in 2002, the protests from Islamabad were shrill and unending.
It is therefore no accident that Richard Holbrooke’s mandate is limited to Afghanistan and Pakistan. At first blush India complicates American policy in that country by arousing Islamabad’s worst paranoid impulses. Yet America’s sole reliance on Pakistan as its key non-Afghan ally in the war on the Taliban, the Haqqani group, and others of their ilk has hardly been an unqualified success. For every Taliban leader killed by a drone, there are others, many others, as well as al-Qaida’s bin Laden, and Zawahri and their gang, who still function in the relative safety that Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas offer them. Moreover, as report after report has made clear, they do so with the full connivance of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency.
Pakistan’s double game will continue as long as it perceives that Washington has no alternative but to work with Islamabad on Islamabad’s terms. Only when the Zardari government, and, more importantly, the Pakistani military, perceive that Washington has a viable alternative approach to Afghanistan, and that its financial and economic aid is not unconditional, will the Pakistani leadership rein in the ISI. India offers that viable alternative. Coordinating our activities with New Delhi, and perhaps, for good measure, with Moscow as well—since the Russians not only have their own, rather bitter, Afghan experience, but are still close to India—would certainly give the Pakistanis much to ponder.
No doubt that there will be those who argue that Pakistan would retaliate by preventing American drones from operating in its airspace, and, perhaps go even further by openly providing support to the Taliban. The truth however, is that if Pakistan is so capable as to be able to prevent high technology drones from carrying out their mission, it could certainly act to prevent the low technology Taliban from conducting their missions from its territory. On the other hand, if Pakistan’s contention that it is doing all it can against the Taliban is indeed correct, it has no hope of stopping the drones from conducting strikes against Taliban operatives. As for supporting the Taliban, Islamabad recognizes that to do so is to play with fire; the memory of the Taliban’s advance into the Buner district some 60 miles from Islamabad is still fresh in the minds of Pakistan’s leaders.
If the Obama administration is truly serious about expanding its relationship with the world’s largest democracy, it will seize the opportunity offered by its long-advertised December review of its Afghanistan strategy to reconsider its ambivalent policy toward working with India against the Taliban. If Washington chooses to create an alternative to its current heavy reliance on Pakistan, it may well convince Islamabad that America is not bereft of other options; that American assistance is not to be taken for granted; and that the United States will no longer tolerate Pakistan’s long-standing double game of working closely with America’s military while supporting those who would do it harm.
(Illustration by Etcha)