A Mat­ter of Friend­ship

Southasia - - COMMENT -

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

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