Turning POINT

 

It will soon be transparent to India that an entire edifice of a foreign policy cannot be underpinned by a single India-US partnership

Zorawar Daulet Singh Delhi

After free-riding on American power for the past few years to improve India's international status, New Delhi's financial and security elites will need to reassess their path to great power status. The ongoing global financial convulsion, which coincided with change in the White House, suggests India's favoured strategic partner will hereon neither possess the luxury nor the resources to enhance US strategic commitments in the West Asian theatre. In fact, the next administration's declared objective to rely on a broader Afghanistan strategy has direct implications for the power play New Delhi had envisaged for itself in the South Asian neighbourhood and beyond.

The structural conditions that enabled the US-Indian rapprochement and subsequent quasi-alliance emerged first with the disappearance of the Soviet Union. The explosion of a nuclear device by India in 1998 brought South Asia back on the US radar screen. It was not until the deployment of US troops in the Hindu Kush in the fall of 2001 that India perceived an opportunity to elevate relations with Washington, and finally hope to displace Pakistan as the preferred ally in the region.

Geography, however, ensured that the Pakistani military remained the only feasible instrument to enable the US to sustain its military presence across the dubious Durand Line (US relies on Pakistan for 80 per cent of its logistics route and air bases). In fact, by late 2004, American claims to de-hyphenate the South Asian triangle were experiencing stresses similar to the Cold War era when Washington was unable to sustain parallel bilateral relations with Pakistan and India.

Pre-empting disillusion among the Indian security community, Washington put forward a bold policy innovation to address the principal obstacle to complete normalisation - India's lack of status in the international nuclear system. For the ensuing three years, the nuclear deal captivated India's elites like little else has. That the finale of this nuclear episode, which resulted in not a single unequivocal strategic, economic, technological or status gain, has not deterred the Indian elite from pressing forward with their quest to emerge as Washington's número uno in the region.    

It was at such a juncture that the financial crisis struck Wall Street, and very rapidly convulsed the entire global financial system and consequently, the broader economy. Even as foreign policy got sidelined as the decisive electoral issue, the incoming Barack Obama administration will inevitably need to reassess US security interests in West Asia and seek to salvage whatever it can.

Indeed, in the closing months of the Bush administration, the conflict in Afghanistan has been portrayed as the principal theatre demanding renewed US strategic attention. Ironically, much of Obama's pre-election strategy to take the conflict deeper into the Afghan-Pakistani frontiers has already been initiated by his predecessor. Already, by an astute mixture of coercion and aid, the US has not only neutralised the intransigence of the Pakistani security and political elite, but is now reportedly receiving valuable intelligence and tactical support of Pakistani troops who are directly engaging the resistance forces in the frontier regions.

The change Obama is likely to bring to this strategy is to convert this ad hoc intervention into a more lasting plan for US military strategic objectives in the region. And for this it is only inevitable that the vital Pakistani support to American objectives would receive a quid pro quo from Washington. That quid pro quo will be a sustained US engagement of Pakistan to reassure its insecure elite of their enduring fear of abandonment.

Indian security pundits have already begun to voice their fears about a re-hyphenation of US engagement in South Asia - the notion that US relations with one South Asian nation is inversely impacted by an improvement in bilateral relations with the other. To be sure, the US has declared that its South Asia policy is and will continue to be based on maintaining stable bilateral relations with both states, dealing with each on its own merit. Thus, de-hyphenation in Washington's perspective was never envisaged as either the eventual abandonment of Pakistan or an elevation of US-India ties in South Asia to the detriment of Pakistani security, optimistic assumptions which underpinned Indian perceptions of Washington's South Asia policy.

Operationally then, de-hyphenation as some Indian strategists perceived it, never occurred. Indeed, two variables preclude the complete de-hyphenation in the US-Pakistan-India triangle. First, geography ensures that Pakistan will remain the principal military adjunct for America's Greater Central Asia strategy. Second, in the absence of a final Indo-Pakistani normalisation (the Kashmir dispute is only a manifestation of a seemingly irreconcilable ideological conflict since the very existence of one neighbour undermines the raison d'être for the other), US policies will inevitably be geared toward maintaining a balance of power, albeit asymmetric, on the subcontinent.

Thus, while the Pakistani security dilemma might eventually get addressed by a credible mix of reassurance and coercion by a confident New Delhi, ideological contradictions would be impossible to resolve without a complete transformation in the guiding political ideology of one of the two neighbours. 

 

In retrospect, it is clear that, for a while, US rhetoric and India's excitement at the prospect of being promised an elevated position in America's regional objectives, prevented the Indian strategic community in accurately appraising Washington's actual policies vis-à-vis Pakistan and the logical necessity for enhanced US-Pakistani cooperation. Many even misread the reported invitation for an overt Indian troop deployment in Afghanistan as further evidence of India's enhanced stature in the conflict resolution process. It now appears that it was more likely a ploy to warn irredentist elements in Pakistani intelligence to reverse their "hedging" strategy of cultivating and promoting Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

In the coming months, if the Obama administration is genuinely sincere about conflict resolution in Afghanistan, it would do well to adopt a multilateral approach by including the most directly affected regional powers - Russia and Iran - in devising a stable and broad-based government in Afghanistan. Either way, New Delhi would do well to reopen an independent channel of dialogue with Tehran and Moscow on Afghanistan.

Indian foreign policy, we were told, had crossed the Rubicon. After over half-a-century of estrangement, India and the US were destined for a global partnership. Insofar as the incoming Obama administration's South Asia policy is concerned, Washington can be expected to prosecute a more realistic, efficient and enduring template for Afghanistan-Pakistan to serve its broader strategy for West Asia, and one that can no longer extol nor afford the rhetoric of Indo-US bonhomie.

In fact, the current geopolitical dynamics in Eurasia, in an emerging multipolar context, implies US disengagement (in the absence of military balancing) from West Asia which is extremely unlikely. And given Pakistan's enduring geopolitical utility as an American outpost, it would involve a long-term US investment in Pakistani power structures, including the cultivation of a
broader civil-political elite and diversified economic engagement.

While such a scenario might even delight the short-sighted Indian strategist who celebrates the image of the retreat of the military in Pakistani political life, the even greater involvement of the US in the region would ensure that Washington would emerge as a more decisive geopolitical arbiter for South Asia in the coming decade.

It will soon be abundantly clear to the next administration in New Delhi that an entire edifice of a foreign policy cannot be underpinned by a single partnership. After all, there are no free lunches in international politics too. 

 

The author is an international relations analyst based in New Delhi