Pakistan has viewed successive partnerships between India and the United States as a “zero-sum game” and always asked, “So are you our friend or are you their friend?” according to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who made rare, candid comments on Pakistan’s India-centric perspectives on possible outcomes in Afghanistan.

Addressing probing questions from Senators during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Ms. Clinton said the U.S. had to recognise that the overriding strategic framework in which Pakistan thinks of itself was its relationship with India.

“Every time we make a move toward improving our relationship with India, which we started in [with] a great commitment to back in the ‘90s — and it has been bipartisan with both President Clinton and President Obama and President Bush — the Pakistanis find that creates a lot of cognitive dissonance,” she said.

Her comments came even as there was less than a month to go before the second round of the India-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in New Delhi.

The Secretary was especially pressed by the Committee Chairman John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Ben Cardin, Democrat of Maryland, to explain why, despite $2.8 billion being channelled into Pakistan last year, “there is clear evidence that their intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, is assisting and funding a terrorist group, Lashkar-e-Taiba; and that is inconsistent with our laws.”

Ms. Clinton responded by painting a picture of the complex web of inter-relationships between India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On the Pakistan-Afghanistan equation she argued that Pakistan desired “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, by which it meant a regime in Kabul and a border that were not going to challenge its interests.

With its focus on the Durand Line, Ms. Clinton said, Pakistan “has in the past invested in a certain amount of instability in Afghanistan,” and it also feared Afghanistan might become a “satellite of India,” given that India and Afghanistan had a historical affinity.

On Indian interests

Yet Indian interests in this relationship could not also be denied, and the Secretary admitted that if the U.S. sought to assure Pakistan “that what would be left [behind in Afghanistan after U.S. troops withdraw] would be favourable to and even, in their view, subservient to Pakistani interests... the Indians aren't going to sit around and accept that.”

Noting that other groups such as the Uzbeks and the Tajiks would also be unwilling to accept such an arrangement, Ms. Clinton made a strong push for a strategy that focused on building up capacity within Afghanistan so that it was “strong enough to defend itself against all comers, but without falling back into civil war, because particularly the Northern Alliance constituents believe that they are threatened by Pakistan and the Pashtuns.”

Touching upon the U.S.’ engagement with India in this regard, the Secretary said that the State Department was “working very hard on our strategic partnership,” and it was “fair to say” that India believed that Pakistan’s continuing support for elements of insurgency against India in Kashmir made it very difficult for Indians to know which path of engagement to choose.

Nevertheless, she expressed some optimism for peace between the two nuclear-armed nations especially in the wake of recent cricket diplomacy between Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

“I have been encouraged by the resumption of talks that had broken off in 2008, and we have certainly urged both sides to go as far as they could to build more confidence and to try to be able to develop an atmosphere of greater cooperation,” she said.

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