The U.S. is looking for a strong ally in Asia to counterbalance China’s rise. Will India be able to elbow Pakistan out of its way so it can gain a strong foothold in Washington?
KARACHI, Pakistan –— Recent signs of a warming of U.S.-India ties could have implications not just for those two countries, but also for India’s neighbor, Pakistan, and South Asia, especially China. Nowhere were these signs more apparent than during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent five-day visit to the United States.
Pakistan, once seen as a close U.S. ally, appears to be falling out of favor amid India’s attempts to elbow the country out of the way so it can gain its own foothold in Washington.
Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told MintPress News that “the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is opening up strategic space” for India.
While American forces were fighting in Afghanistan, he says, Washington was trying to deepen its relationship with Pakistan, in order to get Islamabad’s help in Afghanistan. “Now, with the pullout, Washington will look toward South Asia with a broader strategic lens, one that will likely zoom out of Pakistan and zoom in on India,” he said.
This doesn’t mean that Washington will “give up on” what Kugelman describes as its “troubled relationship” with Pakistan. But he says that “U.S. officials won’t be as patient with Pakistan as they have been in recent years, and they will no longer feel as strong of a need to avoid provoking Pakistan.”
Meanwhile, others speculate that the rekindling of the U.S.-India relationship is an effort to counter China’s expanding economic and military clout not only in the region, but around the world.
“Washington hopes that India can play a counterbalancing role to China’s growing presence across Asia,” Kugelman explained, noting, however, that he believes it is unlikely that India would explicitly serve as a counterbalance, especially “given Modi’s admiration for China and its economic system.”
While China’s rise is an issue that the U.S. and India may see eye-to-eye on, at least superficially, he said, “I think there could be some difference in views as to the proper response to its rise.”
Ambreen Agha, a research assistant with New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management, said U.S.-India ties are likely to make China “uncomfortable” because those ties are linked to India’s security interests and, in turn, Chinese security credibility.
“This brings China’s territorial aggression to the fore. For instance, Chinese intrusion in Ladakh have not stopped,” she said. Ladakh, a border region in Kashmir, has recently seen a standoff between Chinese and Indian military.
Agha also noted India and U.S. concerns regarding the South China Sea — another “contentious issue” putting Chinese security credibility at stake.
“India’s economic, political and military engagement with China should be further developed for India’s security,” she advised.
Some have interpreted the reception given to Modi during his recent U.S. trip as the U.S. testing the waters in terms of cementing its newfound friendship with India — much to the consternation of Pakistan.
Amid talks of bilateral trade, climate change, the development of smart cities in India, improved access to clean water and sanitation for all, and much more, Modi and President Barack Obama also held talks on “dismantling” terrorist “safe havens” and “criminal networks.”
Their joint statement, released on Sept. 29, contains significant messages for Pakistan, with commitments regarding concerted efforts toward disrupting “all financial and tactical support for networks such as Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, the D-Company, and the Haqqanis. They reiterated their call for Pakistan to bring the perpetrators of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai to justice.”
Lashkar-e-Taiba, an anti-India group based in Kashmir, orchestrated the 2008 attack in Mumbai that left 164 dead. The D-Company is a reference to Dawood Ibrahim, the so-called “mafia don” widely believed to be in Pakistan and the mastermind behind the 1993 blasts that killed over 260 and injured at least 700 in India’s commercial center of Mumbai. The Haqqani network, active along the Indian-Afghan border, has been working against both Indian and U.S. interests.
A day after the joint statement was issued, the U.S. announced that it was freezing the assets of the leaders of two Pakistan-based terror organizations — Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat ul Mujahideen. Ansar-ul-Ummah, as the Harkat ul Mujahideen was renamed in 2013, is a Kashmir-oriented militant group that operates throughout India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
These organizations’ U.S.-based assets and assets under the control of anyone in the U.S. are now frozen, and U.S. citizens are generally prohibited from engaging in transactions with them.
For the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kugelman and others analysts, the counter-terrorism cooperation laid out in the joint statement represents “arguably the most significant elements of the entire statement.”
Many of the militant groups in Pakistan have “historic links” to the Pakistani “security establishments,” Kugelman said, warning that Pakistan would be directly affected if the U.S. and India were to “operationalize” their cooperation to combat these groups.
“While an extremely unlikely possibility, we can’t completely discount the future prospect of joint U.S.-Indian counter-terror operations against these groups, particularly if one of these militant groups launches terror attacks inside India,” he said, noting that “this is an extremely unlikely scenario, but not completely out of the question.”
Lahore-based defense analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi said Modi “successfully projected himself and India at the global level by addressing the issues that interest the international community.” By referencing the attack on Mumbai in 2008 and the issue of Pakistan-based militant groups, he explained, Modi was able to get Washington to reaffirm its support for India.
Meanwhile, Ambreen Agha, a research assistant with New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management, said the ominous tone of the joint statement and the warming of relations between New Delhi and Washington should definitely send “alarm bells for Pakistan that has, so far, been a terrorist safe haven, accommodating outfits like the Haqqani network and the anti-India Lashkar-e-Taiba.”
“Smiles, handshakes and meetings”
Indeed, experts have taken note of this warming of relations between the two countries — especially since it’s only been recently that these relations haven’t been a struggle to achieve or maintain.
“There were many smiles, handshakes and meetings — symbolic achievements that suggest both sides are ready to get the relationship back on track,” Kugelman said, noting, however, that there were “no substantive outcomes.”
Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was also in Washington during Modi’s visit, but Rizvi says Sharif missed an opportunity to showcase Pakistan’s efforts to fight terrorism at home.
“While Pakistan’s image problem vis-a-vis terrorism at the global level had increased, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was also there at the same time as Modi, failed to play up the security operation in North Waziristan, which would have evoked a positive response from the international community,” he said.
The official reaction from Pakistan has been nothing more than of nonchalance. “There is a procedure at the United Nations to declare any person or organisation a terrorist; however, the US’ decision to declare three Pakistani-based organisations [as terrorist groups] does not apply to Pakistan,” Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam told reporters at a weekly briefing.
The writing on the wall seems clear for all to read, except those at the helm, Dawn, an English daily, said in an editorial.
“Therein lies the problem: while Pakistan continues to baulk at acting against certain militant groups, the countries under threat from those organisations are moving closer to each other in order to counter the threat,” it continued, warning of the possibility of targeted counter-terrorism operations.
Dawn also noted that it is puzzling that the “country’s national security and foreign policy apparatus” would remain “indifferent to” the storm that appears to be brewing.
Pakistan should act before others do
Agha, the research assistant, says it is time Pakistan pulled up its socks and cooperated with the two anti-terrorism allies in dismantling terrorist safe havens within its borders that have resided and thrived with the support of the Inter-Services Intelligence – Pakistan’s Intelligence Agency. “Pakistan should react with military adroitness and should take on the terrorist formations living inside,” she said.
Defense analysts have long been pointing to the close camaraderie the leadership of militant groups have enjoyed with Pakistan’s security establishment, suggesting the latter should sever all such ties and cleanse the country of this nuisance. “Only if the Pakistan army is ready to abandon its ‘assets,’ only then can a political and militaristic solution defeat the enemy within,” said Agha.
She admits that’s easier said than done, though. Referring to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s protests, which will have lasted for two months on Oct. 14, she sees Pakistan as being held in the grips of political instability, thus a military victory over terrorist outfits seems a rather remote possibility.
Pakistan in, India out?
Not yet, said Agha. However, she says Pakistan should know that the international community will not tolerate terror strikes with roots in Pakistan.
“I do fear another Operation Geronimo, targeting al-Qaida ‘chief’ Zawahiri, who hides in Pakistan, which would once again put Pakistan’s sovereignty at stake,” she said. The Modi-Obama counter-terrorism cooperation, Agha noted, came on the heels of al-Qaida’s recent announcement that it has formed a South Asia wing, which put security issues amid India’s top concerns.
Kugelman describes U.S. policy toward New Delhi since Modi’s election as “one big charm offensive.” It is an effort to show India that Washington is ready to engage with Modi, despite having banned him from visiting the U.S. after the Gujarat riots in 2002, he said.
Top U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, recently traveled to New Delhi to meet with India’s new government, then Obama welcomed Modi to Washington last week. “This is all part of an American effort to re-engage with India,” Kugelman said of the U.S. efforts to “woo” India.