A Matter of Friendship
President Barack Obama visited India for three days and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi showed off their friendship in no uncertain terms, even making a cup of tea for his guest. They talked about closer cooperation on defense, economic and civilian nuclear issues, and Obama even endorsed India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. All through this, Pakistan watched the happenings with consternation and wondered where it stood in the South Asian equation vis-à-vis the US. It emerged that Pakistan had critical questions about the way Obama embraced India and it was quite obvious that the wily Modi was all set to put a spanner in the works and spoil Islamabad’s relationship with Washington, troubled though it already is.
As could be expected, the US subsequently asked Pakistan to come down hard on the militants and, further, bring the perpetrators of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai to justice. Both Obama and Modi talked about the way China’s influence was growing in the region, one of Pakistan’s main patrons and promised cooperation with Afghanistan. Obama’s visit to India was big news in Pakistan and the media particularly noted the fact that while Obama had been to the country twice on state visits, he had not cared to touch Pakistan though former president Bill Clinton had taken out a few hours to visit Islamabad during his visit to the region. Why this discrimination? It is said that following the Sept. 11 attacks, Washington had funded Pakistan with billions of dollars in military and economic assistance to help it fight terrorism. But Pakistan’s commitment to the fight was also questioned all along and it came into sharper focus when U.S. forces purportedly found Osama bin Laden living in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011. Therefore, if there were any plans that Pakistan be included in the South Asia itinerary of the US President, these were scrapped and the Pakistan government had to be happy with just a phone conversation between Barack Obama and Nawaz Sharif. However, the US has continually said that it regards Pakistan as a crucial partner in its counter-terrorism efforts. It is true that the US is concerned about extremists operating with arrogance in Pakistan’s tribal regions and the Pakistan Army’s Operation Zarb e Azb has largely watered down the militants’ potential for such attacks. This effort was supported by US Secretary of State John Kerry, who during a recent visit to Islamabad praised the Pakistani Army’s ongoing offensive against the militants.
It is a fact that relations between India and Pakistan are perhaps at their lowest point since 2008 when terrorists hit Mumbai. A bid to restart negotiations between the two neighbours was called off in 2013 by India because they said a Pakistani diplomat had met an Indian Kashmiri separatist group. In the meanwhile, armies from both countries have clashed on the border several times, causing fatal casualties and making thousands of people to flee. After the Taliban attack on innocent schoolchildren in Peshawar in December 2014, Pakistan has again vowed to take action against all insurgent groups on its soil. At the same time, the Pakistani military has also stepped up its allegations against India and has presented evidence to the U.S. that Indian intelligence operatives have been supporting anti-Pakistan militants. There were also murmurs in Pakistani political circles that while they understood Obama’s trip to India favoured the country, the U.S. could not abandon Pakistan.
Pakistan and the US have had a chequered history, more so than any other two nations in recent times. When President Obama was visiting India, the Pakistan Army Chief was paying an equally significant trip to China where he met with his Chinese counterpart. The timing of the two trips can even mean that the axis of alliance is shifting in the subcontinent. President Obama may have been playing to the gallery and mildly admonishing Pakistan by praising India and its potential during his visit. It is true that China’s runaway growth is troubling Washington which also considers Pakistan surplus to its requirements. General Raheel Sharif may have earlier had a good reception in the US and UK as well but if the US is no longer bound to its previous strategic interests in South Asia, then it should let other friendships develop in the region, such as the growing warmth between Pakistan and China.
Syed Jawaid Iqbal