President Barack Obama’s public statements in Mumbai praising Islamabad’s efforts against terrorists and reminding India of its stake in Pakistan’s long-term stability are no surprise. However, they will reinforce a residual concern in New Delhi that the US leader continues to see India as a card to play in a larger AfPak poker game.
This concern has a basis. During his election campaign, say Washington sources, a number of his Afghan war advisors like Bruce Riedel and Madeleine Albright traced the source of the problem to Pakistan. But their next jump was to argue the solution to Pakistan’s psychopathy was a Kashmir settlement. This surfaced in Obama’s pre-election references to Kashmir.
India jumped on this with two feet. US officials believe they were indirectly warned that if AfPak Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke’s brief included Kashmir he would be denied access in India.
After Obama was elected, India sent repeated signals that overt American bandying around of the K word would go down poorly.
India’s restraint after the Mumbai 26/11 terror attack helped dampen talk New Delhi wasn’t doing enough to help the US war effort. More useful was the overwhelming evidence, both that there was no greater advocate for dialogue with Pakistan than Manmohan Singh.
The State Department’s South Asia desk, packed with veterans of the Bush years, pitched in by arguing a US push on Kashmir would only undermine Singh’s efforts.
Nonetheless, as the war has dragged on and Obama struggles with a two-faced Pakistani military, the idea of squeezing India to win points with Pakistan has survived.
Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s War describes the president asking at an Afghan war meeting in October last year, “We need to move aggressively on India-Pakistan issues in order to try to reduce the tensions.” The books speaks of a US intelligence “consensus” that “Afghanistan would not
get straightened out until there was a stable relationship between Pakistan and India.”
Like acne, this policy keeps recurring on the surface of administration statements. Asia expert Daniel Twining of the German Marshall Fund points to a New York Times article on the eve of Obama’s arrival in India about US concerns about the Indian military’s Cold Start doctrine — a Pakistani obsession.
“Obama gets a steady dose of inputs from his AfPak team who still believe that he can get something from India that will make the US’s time easier in Afghanistan,” says Daniel Markey of the Council of Foreign Relations.
Says Markey, “India should take the opportunity of the visit to make an extended, forceful argument about the long term strategic implications of Afghanistan, to include India, China, Russia and Iran, as well as Pakistan.
Despite the learning that has happened within the administration, I don’t think these points are appreciated.”