The United States finds itself doing a precarious tightrope act between India and Pakistan this week, with the U.S.-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue kicking off in Washington exactly two weeks ahead of President Barack Obama boarding a flight to India.
Nowhere was the tension more evident than in Wednesday's State Department briefing and, more specifically, on the subject of Afghanistan. At the briefing, Department spokesman P.J. Crowley hinted that Pakistan had been “meddling” in Afghanistan's politics and emphasied that India would continue to play a constructive role in Afghanistan.
Mr. Crowley's first salvo came in response to a question on whether countries such as India and Iran — and not just Pakistan — had a role in the ongoing reconciliation talks between the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan and the Taliban.
He responded, “We recognise Afghanistan's need to have a dialogue with its neighbours. We have had concerns about Iran's meddling in Afghanistan, just as we have had concerns about other countries meddling in Afghanistan,” a likely reference to Pakistan.
Suggesting that Pakistan's earlier support to the Taliban regime in Afghanistan might still rankle in the U.S.' memory, Mr. Crowley noted: “To the extent that the Taliban once ruled Afghanistan, there were a small number of countries that recognised that government. Pakistan was one of them.”
However, Mr. Crowley said that “to the extent that the solution to Afghanistan does involve a regional solution”, the U.S. recognised countries like India “had an interest in a stable Afghanistan and can play a constructive role”.
To reach that regional solution, dialogue was essential and hence, the U.S. was engaging Afghanistan's key neighbours to build effective, sustainable relationships across the region.
This was one of the reasons why Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke had talked about the importance of the transit trade agreement — an agreement that would improve trade between India and Afghanistan routed through Pakistan.
There was a clear message to the visiting Pakistani delegation in Washington as well. Mr. Crowley said: “We have made no secret of the fact that we've told Pakistan clearly that we believe that the existential threat to Pakistan is not India; the existential threat to Pakistan involves extremism within its own borders.”
And, equally, a hint to India: “Likewise, we're having a similar conversation with a country like India. We believe that there the potential for cooperation certainly outweighs what might be perceptions about competition in the region.”
The State Department had also clearly determined that peace and stability in Afghanistan would not be feasible without Iran's contributions to the process. Notwithstanding the differences on nuclear politics, Mr. Crowley said, “we have not ruled out that there are overlapping areas of interest that we have with Iran with respect to a stable and prosperous Afghanistan. We are not ruling out that as an area of potential dialogue…”