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A tricky terrain

As the US-Pakistan relationship lurches from tumultuous to tentative, India needs to be agile and have few expectations from a volatile, inconsistent equation. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Jul 06, 2012 22:04 IST
Barkha Dutt,Pakistan,Ahmed Rashid

'Pakistan and America are just short of going to war,' wrote acclaimed author Ahmed Rashid in the autumn of 2011 to describe what was arguably the worst phase in an ever-deteriorating relationship between the two countries. If the steep descent began with Operation Neptune Spear at Abbottabad - when American Navy SEALs took out Osama bin Laden in a covert intrusion that left the Pakistani military weakened and embarrassed - the safety net to break the fall was taken away when 24 soldiers were killed by US-led Nato forces at the Salala border post in November that same year.

The Americans, who insisted that they were fired at first, argued that Pakistani commanders had been informed in advance about an anti-Taliban operation in the area that day and had been told there were no soldiers on duty in the vicinity. The Pakistanis termed the attack as "unprovoked and indiscriminate", promptly shut down all the supply routes for Nato forces in Afghanistan and ousted the Americans from the Shamsi airbase. Alternative routes into Afghanistan cost the Americans up to a $100 million extra every month. Yet for seven months, America was dogged in its refusal to apologise formally with US defence secretary Leon Panetta declaring that his country would not be "gouged" by Pakistan on the price it charges for overland military deliveries into Afghanistan.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that it was during this period of meltdown that the US justice department declared a $10-million bounty for any information leading to the arrest of Hafiz Saeed - the main patron of terror group Lashkar-e Taiba. Later, on her visit to India, American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton didn't bother with diplomatic niceties when she told me in a televised interaction that she had personally authorised the bounty for "one of the people we believe was the mastermind of the attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people, including six Americans. We want everybody associated with this brought to justice. It may take longer than any of us would like but we are going to be standing with you to make that happen". Asked who the next big target was now that bin Laden had been eliminated, she didn't blink for a second before announcing that "Zawahiri, who has inherited the leadership from bin Laden, is somewhere, we believe, in Pakistan", prompting an enraged government in Islamabad to demand that "if anybody has any actionable intelligence they should share it with us."

To India it was clear - the more the US-Pakistan relationship ruptured, the more the pressure would be cranked up on Islamabad for the absence of concrete deliverables in the 26/11 trial. But now that a preciously phrased, but brutally negotiated US apology - coming after seven months of refusing to say sorry - has plastered a small bandage across a still bleeding equation, we must ask if the converse is also true.

In other words, just as we are celebrating how American pressure on Saudi Arabia led us to Abu Jundal/Zaibuddin Ansari - the critical Indian connection to the 10 terrorists who declared war on Mumbai - we should pause and consider what might change now that a rapprochement, however fragile, is on the table.

Because no matter how many hyphens were removed by Washington in its post-9/11 strategy for South Asia, the arduous business of daily negotiations, especially on Afghanistan, means that India-Pakistan will still be written with a dash in between by tacticians on Capitol Hill. India and the US may be repeatedly heralded as "natural allies" but let's face it - India remains a critical point of leverage in America's carrots-and-sticks approach to Pakistan.

The other fact that should be apparent to Indians is that at least as long as the Americans have a military presence in Afghanistan, the US administration will not manage a clear-eyed, consistent policy with Pakistan. For India to base any expectations from an innately volatile relationship that is trapped by the pursuit of short-term benefits would be not just dangerous, but positively stupid.

This brief breakthrough between two countries essentially antagonistic of each other - "allies, but not friends", as Stephen Cohen called them - has already set the stage for the next collapse. No one expects the essentials of their equation to change because of an apology that is frankly more symbolic than substantive. In fact, despite a fierce anti-American street sentiment in Pakistan - one that could shadow the outcome of the next general election there - the Americans have been able to seal the deal on supply routes at the old price of $250 per container instead of on Pakistan's earlier demand for $5,000 for every truck that went across. Neither drone attacks will diminish; nor will the American pressure on Pakistan to act against militant groups like the Jalaluddin Haqqani network, which is seen by many US officials as a strategic asset of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence that refuses to go after its sanctuaries in North Waziristan. Blamed by General John Allen - the US commander of Nato troops in Afghanistan for the recent audacious assaults in Kabul - the network's safe havens in Pakistan remain a likely point of imminent meltdown.

The disappointment for many American critics of the 'apology' was the failure to extract a meaningful return for the seven-month overdue regret. Instead of linking it only to the re-opening of the logistical routes, the Americans could have used the apology to push for greater action against militant elements in Afghanistan that the US is already locked in battle with.

But the US-Pakistan dynamic seems to lurch from tumultuous to tentative - sometimes blusterous and blunt and at other times cautious and confused. As both countries seek to find their balance on a tightrope not made for walking, India will need to be agile enough to re-adapt its own strategic responses and not count on any certainty in an ever-changing great game.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal