US and Indo-Pak relations: the Obama view

While Pakistan came up all too frequently during the recently concluded US Presidential campaign, South Asia watchers sat up when Barack Obama spoke of working with India to deal with Pakistan’s concerns about its security, a prerequisite to bring peace to Afghanistan. This triangular dynamic seems common sense in the subcontinent but attracts only peripheral attention in Washington where Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are seen only from the angle of bilateral relations.

Obama’s statement made many wonder if it implied US was going to step into the role of mediator between India and Pakistan. Although this suggestion was dismissed by both Presidential candidates in the light of the progress of the Indo-Pak peace process, some of the commentary that went with suggestions of mediation hinted at it as being necessary to resolve the schism between the two neighbors.

At least one of the problems with a suggestion of US mediation is that it presumes that the conflicting parties are not rational actors – a notion that subcontinentals find repelling. Of course the US has a long and fairly successful history of conflict mediation from the Camp David accords between Egypt and Israel to the Good Friday process that brought peace to Ireland, and the Dayton accords that negotiated peace settlement in Yugoslavia.

However unlike in all these cases, the conflicting parties in South Asia are not inviting the US for mediation. This has to do less with issues of sovereignty and more to do with self-identity. India and Pakistan perceive themselves as rational actors who can resolve disputes bilaterally.

The United States has thus far acted sensibly and even pressed upon by Pakistan and Kashmiri expat groups to intervene, has chosen to say that it supports the Indian stand on the issue, that disputes can be adequately resolved through Indo-Pak bilateral dialog.

But should the US choose to change this policy and attempt mediation, it would have to first start by addressing the South Asians as mature, rational actors. Unfortunately this is easier said than done going by rhetoric in Washington both about Pakistan during the current debates and about India during the ratification of the nuclear deal. India and Pakistan are seen as two trigger-happy children who’ve got hold of dangerous nuclear toys.

I remember a former official in the US’ national security apparatus once mentioning that during one of the post-nuclearisation crises in South Asia, he asked an Indian official whether the nuclear option was being considered. The Indian official said that “Yes, a limited nuclear engagement is possible”. Whether or not the official meant it, the American was stunned…and told the Indian, “You have no idea what you are talking about”.

This is one of the general perceptions that clouds the less seasoned among American diplomats. While this has some roots in the American self-image and exceptionalism, it reminds subcontinentals of Kiplingesque “white man’s burden”.

For instance, doves in Washington often point out how unlike the USSR and the US, India and Pakistan are so close that there would be almost no warning time in case of a missile launch restricting any attempt at protection. Anyone who’s worked in missile defense would tell you that even for ICBMs during the cold war, neither the US nor the USSR had any means to stop or divert a missile once it was launched. Ballistic missile defense systems can hardly shoot down an incoming missile in its boost phase even with the best of technology like the still-born Star Wars program. Hence, the nuclear threat between the US and USSR was comparable and in no way more than the threat faced in the subcontinent. In fact, the Cold war arms race spawned tactical nukes like Davy Crockets and artillery shells which were more lethal than any weapon that has emerged on the subcontinent. Therefore, if the US and USSR could work over their differences without mediation during the Cold war, then so can India and Pakistan.

This is not to dismiss the value a mediator can bring to the table. Conflicts often get exacerbated due to asymmetry of information and a respected mediator can play a vital role by acting as a channel of communication between the two parties. Thus, the United States’ value as a mediator cannot be dismissed. But what is pertinent is how the US dons this role and how it treats the two parties once it dons the role – as sovereign states or quarrelling juveniles.

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