It is hardly surprising that the Obama administration is reportedly stepping up pressure on India to resolve bilateral issues with Pakistan in order to better handle Afghanistan.
The Wall Street Journal reported that President Barack Obama issued a "secret directive in December to intensify American diplomacy aimed at easing tensions between India and Pakistan, asserting that without détente between the two rivals, the administration's efforts to win Pakistani cooperation in Afghanistan would suffer."
That has been Obama's position ever since he embarked on his presidential run in 2007. "The most important thing we're going to have to do with respect to Afghanistan is actually deal with Pakistan. And we've got work with the newly elected government there in a coherent way that says terrorism is now a threat to you. Extremism is a threat to you. We should probably try to facilitate a better understanding between Pakistan and India and try to resolve the Kashmir crisis so that they can stay focused not on India, but on the situation with those militants," Obama had told MSNBC in an interview in November 2008.
The comments from the then Senator Obama had been met with considerable consternation in New Delhi at the time. It is not clear whether India had informally reached out to Senator Obama's foreign policy advisers to understand the nuances of his South Asia policy then. But now that it is being reported that President Obama is indeed seeking to strike some parity between US success in Afghanistan and the two South Asian neighbors resolving Kashmir and other issues, the Manmohan Singh government ought to step up its game.
If the secret directive was issued in December, it is more than likely that there has already been a great deal of back and forth between Washington and New Delhi over that approach. The Singh government's decision to perceptibly scale down its engagement in Afghanistan now appears to be a direct consequence of the US leaning on India.
While in terms of his domestic political compulsions Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may yet manage to convince his party's base as well as his political opponents about the rationale to step back in Afghanistan to pacify Pakistan's obvious worries, any significant concession on Kashmir is bound to set off a firestorm of protests. There is no way the Singh government can afford to appear as if it is ceding ground on Kashmir because it frees up Pakistan to help the Obama administration stabilize Afghanistan.
It is true that a stable Afghanistan is as much in India's interests as it is in Pakistan's but if the road to achieving that objective passes through Kashmir then it is not a proposition the Singh government would find acceptable. Even a prime minister as amenable to US counsels as Manmohan Singh will draw the line when it comes to letting the Kashmir resolution become an expedient move in the larger global game in Afghanistan.
It is more than likely that Prime Minister Singh will raise the matter of the "secret directive" with President Obama when the former visits Washington to attend the nuclear summit next week. The fact that the summit's primary focus will be on the threat of nuclear terrorism provides Singh an excellent segue to raising the question of Pakistan's reluctance as well as inability to control terrorist groups targeting India from its soil. Unless Pakistan offers specific guarantees and commitments on terrorism, India has already said substantive dialogue may not make sense.
On a related matter, despite more US troops being deployed in Afghanistan by the Obama administration, the situation there is not showing any signs of improvement. In fact, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's startling outburst against the West in the last few days, including the comment that even he might be forced to join the Taliban because of mounting US pressure on him to deliver good governance, has set the clock back even further.
With Karzai becoming openly defiant, the US has to have an alternative approach which would necessarily require an expanded role for Pakistan. Islamabad could see an opportunity in the growing distance between Karzai and Obama and grab that to make its support conditional on Washington taking a more aggressive stand with India.
It is not surprising that the pressure to lean on India is coming from the Pentagon which needs greater cooperation from Pakistan in the short-term and more quickly unlike the State Department which necessarily takes a long-term view of the situation.