Michael KreponStuck on the Subcontinent

Quote of the week:

“A diplomat who says “yes” means “maybe,” a diplomat who says “maybe” means “no,” and a diplomat who says “no” is no diplomat.” — Talleyrand

Important diplomatic gears are stuck on the subcontinent. The Governments of India and Pakistan aren’t moving to improve relations, at least not any time soon. Newly installed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, with seeming support from his army chief, has notably said that he is willing to take two steps forward to Narendra Modi’s one, but this choreography isn’t about to start. At this juncture, they are more likely to take two steps backwards than forwards.

Nor are Modi and Imran doing terribly well in their dealings with the Trump administration. Donald Trump is palpably uncomfortable with being hugged by Modi, and he is disinterested in Imran’s desire to improve ties. Besides, the price of diplomatic progress with Washington appears high in New Delhi and Islamabad, while calculations of presumed benefits seem modest. Washington’s influence is on the wane, here as elsewhere, and Capitol Hill’s fondness for sanctions certainly hasn’t helped.

It doesn’t take much to derail attempts to improve ties between India and Pakistan. Any such effort can embarrass leaders making the effort when spoilers derail progress, as they are inclined to do. Little did Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee know when he embarked on his symbolism-freighted visit to Lahore in 1999 that implementation of the Kargil operation had already begun. Likewise, the 2008 Mumbai carnage put an end to backchannel efforts to revive public diplomacy.

Ever since, cross-border attacks have not been savage enough to prompt a major crisis, but have been sufficient to embarrass Prime Ministers making overtures to improve relations. As previously noted in this space, two days after Modi invited Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend his inauguration in May 2014, Lashkar-e Taiba cadres attacked the Indian consulate in Herat. In July 2015, 17 days after the Indian and Pakistani foreign secretaries released a hopeful joint statement announcing their readiness to “discuss all outstanding issues” and condemning “terrorism in all its forms,” militants tied to groups based in Pakistan attacked a police station in Gurdaspur, killing seven. In January 2016, eight days after Modi’s surprise Christmas Day visit to Lahore bearing birthday and wedding gifts for Nawaz Sharif and his family, the Indian Air Force Base at Pathankot was attacked, followed the next day by an attack on the Indian consulate at Mazar-i-Sharif.

The worst casualty count since the 2008 Mumbai attacks occurred in September 2016 at an Indian military camp in Uri, ruining an upcoming regional summit meeting. After the Uri attack, Modi authorized and publicized “surgical strikes” across the Kashmir divide, upping the ante and deflecting domestic outrage.  It’s not unusual for Indian and Pakistani commandos to overrun border posts, but it is unusual to see footage on line and on TV.

By comparison, the latest kerfuffle about starting new talks after Imran Khan’s election victory was prompted by a minor attack and the issuance of postage stamps highlighting the Kashmir dispute before Imran assumed office. Usually, a new government prompts a new start, but Indian elections are on the horizon and the Modi government is priming the pump, including celebrating the second anniversary of the surgical strikes. Many good ideas for confidence-building and nuclear risk-reduction measures on the subcontinent, like those proposed in the Stimson Center’s Off Ramps initiative, will have to wait.

Traction to improve U.S. ties with Pakistan and India is also hard to come by. The Trump administration’s policies toward Pakistan seem to track closely with the recommendations of a Hudson Institute report, A New U.S. Approach to Pakistan: Enforcing Aid Conditions without Cutting Ties whose principal authors are Husain Haqqani and Lisa Curtis, now on the National Security Council Staff.

They argue that Pakistan’s national security managers “need to take a comprehensive approach to shutting down all Islamist militant groups that operate from Pakistani territory… Accordingly, the objective of the Trump administration’s policy toward Pakistan must be to make it more and more costly for Pakistani leaders to employ a strategy of supporting terrorist proxies to achieve regional strategic goals.”

This approach has yielded few dividends so far. The Trump administration has “right-sized” U.S. support for Pakistan — meaning that U.S. military assistance has plummeted, including the unwise step of dis-inviting Pakistani military officers at training institutes. Moreover, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has publicly cast doubt about U.S. support for yet another bailout of Pakistan by the International Monetary Fund. Carrots offered by the Bush and Obama administrations have been replaced by sticks.

The Trump administration’s penalty-oriented, Afghan-centric approach to Pakistan is understandable, but faces long odds. After seventeen years, Washington’s patience is wearing thin and its desire for a diplomatic settlement is palpable. But after seventeen years, it is also clear that Pakistan’s national security establishment will do what it takes to assure a friendly, or at least non-hostile, neighbor to its west. Washington’s current talking point about Pakistan “doing more” relates to bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Even if this happens, Pakistan’s objectives and long-term plans are likely to remain at variance with those of Washington.

Left unaddressed are two major questions: Is Afghanistan the most important issue between Pakistan and the United States? And is there any realistic way for Washington to influence Pakistan’s behavior on this or other key issues? If the answer to the first question is “no,” then the Trump administration has the wrong focus. If the answer to the second question is “yes,” then it’s up to Islamabad and Rawalpindi to clarify positive movement, and it’s up to Washington to recognize it.

As for U.S.-Indian ties, the bloom seems to be off this rose. High hopes about New Delhi’s help vis-à-vis China in the “Indo-Pacific” region have been grounded by the realities of Indian strategic culture and domestic politics. New Delhi is more than willing to accept gifts from Washington, but not at the expense of its strategic autonomy. The stubborn reality is that India’s voting record in the UN General Assembly doesn’t vary all that much from China. Moreover, it remains exceedingly hard for any Indian government to reform dysfunctional practices governing national defense or to get more “bang for the Rupee” in defense spending.

Donald Trump’s decision not to be inconvenienced by traveling to New Delhi to serve as chief guest to watch a spectacular Republic Day parade has been clarifying. Trump’s penchant for tariffs, sanctions and visa constraints, which seem ingrained, is further clarifying. It was telling that the “Two Plus Two” talks between U.S. and Indian cabinet secretaries in September yielded fewer results than Vladimir Putin’s visit shortly thereafter. The centerpiece of the Putin visit — the signing of a deal worth five billion dollars for Russia’s S-400 missile system — defies the Trump administration’s threat to impose harsh sanctions.

Washington and New Delhi can still find common areas to improve relations, but advances are likely to be incremental. For the near term, New Delhi (along with other U.S. partners and allies) will have to deal with the Trump administration’s self-wounding actions. This, too, shall pass. Until then, the case for heavy lifting on New Delhi’s part is less than persuasive for an administration that espouses an “America First” strategy. The longer term, structural problem of deeply ingrained Indian habits that defy significant change in its national security policies will remain.

A period of diplomatic gridlock seems in the offing for Washington, New Delhi and Islamabad. As long as this is the case, the Trump administration’s national security strategy objectives for the region will remain beyond reach. In the near term, gridlock is more likely to be broken by bad news than by promising developments. Ironically, one good argument for avoiding another crisis until relations can improve is the unpredictability of and lack of confidence in the Trump administration.

Note to readers: A shorter, earlier version of this essay appeared on the websites of The Herald and Dawn (Pakistan) on October 15th. 


  1. Michael Krepon (History)

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