India's neighbourhood may soon get a new look
In the first week of April, the United States cleared Foreign Military Sale to Pakistan for AH-1Z Viper Attack Helicopters and AGM-114R Hellfire II Missiles as part of a $1-billion deal. Before this deal came through, the US had released $1 billion for Pakistan from the Coalition Support Funds in 2014, in addition to the $30-odd billion already given under some or the other head to the country.
The helicopter and missile deal is the largest one since $5.8 billion in 2006 for upgrading F16 aircraft. This latest agreement, like the previous ones, has been cleared despite the fact that Pakistan has steadfastly worked against the US’ interests in Afghanistan, used the Haqqani Network, controlled and manipulated the Taliban and misled the US on Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts.
So there must be very good reasons why the US is choosing to ignore Pakistan’s track record and reward it. Could it be for the services rendered to the US in the past or is it a payment for the future? This economic and military support to Pakistan could also be an insurance in the futile hope that Islamabad will stay away from Beijing, which is making very strong moves in Afghanistan and Iran.
China has offered to construct the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline that will pass through Gwadar to Nawabshah in Sindh and will also sell eight submarines to Pakistan. Finally, the latest US-Pakistan deal could also be a small gift to Pakistan to assuage a feeling of insecurity and hurt after President Barack Obama visited India twice.
This military deal with Pakistan reaffirms the belief that the US has an abiding interest in the country regardless of its misdemeanours. There is also a message for India in this: If New Delhi continues to shop elsewhere then America will sell arms to other countries because armament export is the lifeline of the US economy and determines the well being of many Congressmen.
The US is also concerned by Pakistan’s interest in buying attack helicopters from Russia and China and the development of an Asia-centric neo-multilateral grouping that excludes it.
Even though the helicopter and Hellfire missile deal may not be a big-ticket item, the US-Pakistan military relationship will continue to be a factor in India-Pakistan relations. It determines Pakistani adventurism and belligerency on bilateral issues with India.
It would be a mistake to assume that the US has changed its policy towards the region. It may have changed its style or the way it wishes to handle India and Pakistan but not its overall interests. The US wants to have a stronger presence in India without losing the hold it has on the military rulers in Pakistan.
Similarly, the optimistic among us must not interpret the recent India-Pakistan humanitarian co-operation in Yemen as the beginning of neighbourly love. These acts were results of practical realities and no side wanted to look petty by not joining hands during such a crucial moment.
India must look for the real Pakistan in its various nuclear missiles, the fissile material it is acquiring and the terrorists it harbours on its soil. None of this has changed and Islamabad continues to prevaricate on the trial of Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and others. Rest assured, Pakistani-inspired terrorist attacks in Jammu and Kashmir will also continue.
A self-confident Pakistan is of interest to India as it could lead to rational mutually beneficial relationship. Together the two could achieve much for their countries and the region.
An over-confident Pakistan tends to be belligerent and aggressive, a nuisance but it achieves little. A diffident Pakistan, under its military and religious bigots, is a danger to itself and the neighbourhood. It adopts guerrilla tactics, literally and figuratively, by using each period of attempts at peace and tranquillity to regroup and consolidate for the next battle.
The recent downturn in Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who feel angered by apparent ingratitude, may be temporary. It may be that Pakistan’s internal political dynamics and religious compulsions will still change this decision and that would be just as significant.
Despite its misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the US is unlikely to stop pursuing its wrong policies or suddenly discover an ability to discern that it was being misled by its allies. The US is unable or unwilling to leverage its economic and military assistance to bring about a change in Pakistan’s policies.
Instead, Pakistan’s sensitivities about Afghanistan will continue to weigh disproportionately in the US’ geopolitical calculations. This is the real world we live in and we will have to learn to deal with a superpower that is increasingly showing evidence of being unable to go it alone.
The superpower is today faced with the distinct possibility that it will be replaced in Afghanistan by China who will use Pakistan as its willing surrogate. The $46-billion infrastructure deal that China has given Pakistan is a step in that direction.
China already has a considerable economic presence in West Asia. It will now concentrate on energy-rich Iran that has emerged much stronger after its nuclear deal and the recent fiascoes in West Asia. China is positioning itself ahead of the US presidential elections next year. The Russians, with their growing understanding with China, cannot be discounted as they strengthen their relations with Iran.
There is renewed talk of an India-Iran deal to develop the Chahbahar port. The stage is being set for a new game in our immediate neighbourhood and it may look different once the dust settles down.
Vikram Sood is former secretary, Research & Analysis Wing
The views expressed by the author are personal