” Obama Mission: Billions to Pakistan, Billions From India” — This screaming headline in the Times of India ahead of President Obama’s visit to New Delhi explains why a quiet crisis is developing in what seems, on the surface, to be an increasingly promising relationship between the world’s two largest democracies.
Calling for a strategic partnership, Washington has pressed New Delhi to buy $11 billion in U.S. fighter aircraft and to sign defense agreements permitting U.S. military aircraft to refuel at Indian airfields and for U.S. naval vessels to dock in Indian ports. But New Delhi responds that the United States can hardly be a strategic partner if it continues to build up the military capabilities of a hostile Pakistan that sponsors Islamist terrorists dedicated to India’s destruction.
The Obama visit this weekend will no doubt strengthen growing cooperation between the United States and India in trade, investment and high technology that contrasts strikingly with the mutual suspicions of the Cold War decades. Promising plans explored at recent G-20 meetings for a new global currency exchange rate regime were also on the agenda.
But the full potential of U.S.-Indian cooperation, including naval cooperation in the face of an increasingly ambitious China, will not be realized until Washington stops providing Islamabad with weaponry that can be used against India and takes a realistic view of the reasons for Indian-Pakistani tensions.
Since 9/11, the U.S. has showered $13.5 billion in military hardware on Islamabad, and it pledged another $2 billion last month. The Pentagon justifies this buildup in the name of combating terrorism. But the big-ticket items have all strengthened Pakistani air and naval capabilities needed for potential combat with India, not for counterinsurgency mountain warfare against the Taliban.
For example, post-2001 U.S. military aid has more than doubled Pakistan’s fleet of nuclear-capable F-16 fighter jets, equipping them with state-of-the-art missiles and laser-guided bombs, and has tripled the number of its anti-submarine helicopters and anti-ship missiles. Before 2001, Pakistan had 200 TOW antitank missiles, crucial in plains warfare with India but of little use in mountain warfare against tribal jihadis. Now it has 5,250.
The message from Islamabad is that Pakistan’s “insecurity” in the face of Indian power explains why it aids the Taliban in Afghanistan, and that a settlement over the disputed Kashmir region would lead Pakistan to abandon support for Islamist forces. Bob Woodward’s book, “Obama’s Wars,” shows in detail that the U.S. intelligence community has accepted this argument uncritically and that it has impressed the president.
But the reason Pakistan supports the Taliban is that it wants to counter Indian influence in Afghanistan with its own surrogates. This objective would not be altered by a Kashmir settlement. More important, the underlying reason for Pakistan’s feelings of insecurity is that it is an artificial entity hastily patched together by the British Raj in the 1947 partition.
The Muslim League movement that campaigned in then-undivided India to create Pakistan had limited mass support in the areas that were to constitute the new state. Recent historical studies have conclusively established that Pakistan came into being primarily because league leaders had agreed to give Britain military bases there, while India’s Jawaharlal Nehru had declared his intention to pursue a nonaligned foreign policy.
No state had ever combined the four incompatible ethnic regions that make up Pakistan today, encompassing the dominant Punjabi and large Baluchi, Pashtun and Sindhi minorities, each with their own ancestral territory. The minorities had fought throughout history to resist domination by the Punjabi, but it was a Punjabi-dominated army that took over the new state.
The U.S. has held Pakistan together for the last half-century by pouring billions in military aid into a series of military dictatorships, initially in return for intelligence-monitoring facilities to spy on Soviet missile sites, later for helping to aid the Afghan resistance and, since 2001, to compensate for cooperation in the “war on terror.”
The army has become a bloated behemoth that dominates Pakistani politics and fans tensions with India to justify the huge defense budgets that underlie its privileged position in Pakistani society. Apart from their dominant position in real estate, current and retired generals run army-linked business conglomerates with net assets totaling $38 billion.
Civilian political leaders have consistently faced opposition from the army in their efforts to reduce tension between India and Pakistan. This was especially true in the case of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who secretly negotiated conventional arms control measures in 1989 with Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi that were snuffed out when discovered by the army. In 1999, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif wanted to de-escalate the crisis resulting from the army’s invasion of Kargil in Kashmir, and this was one of the factors that led to his ouster by Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Now President Asif Ali Zardari has made clear that he would like to pick up where Bhutto, his late wife, left off.
Zardari is often dismissed as a corrupt playboy incapable of governing, and he has indeed been a weak administrator. But he has demonstrated surprising courage and consistency in seeking to downgrade the Kashmir issue and to jump-start trade with India as the key to easing Indian-Pakistani tensions.
Significantly, it was in the weeks preceding the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack that Zardari first went public with his peace overtures. Dismissing the threat of an Indian attack, he declared that the Muslim insurgents fighting Indian rule in Kashmir were “terrorists.” Then, two days before the Mumbai attack, he said, “I can assure you Pakistan will not use nuclear weapons first against India.”
This reversed Pakistan’s policy of deliberate ambiguity on the first use of nuclear weapons and outraged military leaders. Was this the last straw for the army? Was the Mumbai attack instigated by Islamist hard-liners to wreck Zardari’s peace campaign, as one of his closest advisors suggested to me? In any case, the army has largely succeeded in silencing him.
To demonstrate sensitivity to Indian concerns about Pakistan, Obama should make clear that the United States accepts the findings of an Indian intelligence probe of the Mumbai attack. The inquiry showed that Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) supported the attack by the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba. The director of Obama’s own initial review of his Afghanistan policy, Bruce Riedel, who has had access to the Indian report, concluded that it “reinforces the sense that Pakistan is riding a jihadist Frankenstein.” Given the level of detail in the Indian probe, he declared, there appears to be “no question that the ISI had a role in Mumbai.” Acknowledging that the ISI is behind Pakistani-based Islamist efforts to destabilize and dismember India is the necessary first step for the United States to demonstrate that it is serious about a true partnership with New Delhi.
Selig Harrison is director of the Asia program at the Center for International Policy and a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.