Dealing with India in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship

In its dealings with the United States, Pakistan starts from the threat it perceives from India and emphasises India's shortcomings. It will continue to use the United States as a balancer, barring a major improvement in India-Pakistan relations.

Updated - August 21, 2016 07:22 pm IST

Published - June 13, 2011 01:49 am IST

Pakistan's view of the world begins with the trauma of the 1947 partition of India, and from the chronic insecurity that it engendered. This is the starting point not only for Pakistan's foreign policy but also for its approach to negotiating with its principal international friends. Pakistan's position as a country one-seventh the size of its giant and, to Pakistanis, hostile neighbour is always at least in the background. The most painful part of this history — the “core issue,” in the term preferred by Pakistani officials and commentators — is Kashmir. Pakistanis believe they have been cheated and betrayed by both India and the international community. They feel that the very structure of their history and geography makes them dependent, vulnerable, and discounted. At the same time, national pride and the need to play up the ways in which they believe Pakistan is superior to India are important themes in their dealings with foreigners.

Pakistani negotiators often try to impress on their U.S. counterparts that Americans and others who have not had to deal with India from a position of weakness do not understand Indian ambitions and guile. As they argue it, Americans are taken in by the Indians and fail to recognise the overbearing, bullying policies and practices India inflicts on Pakistan and the other smaller countries of South Asia. Most Pakistanis believe that Americans are not aware of India's longstanding hegemonic goals and the dangers to Pakistani and U.S. interests that they entail.

Pakistani tactics to correct these “misimpressions” and instil a “more realistic” understanding of what the Indians are up to will vary, of course, with individual Pakistanis, their American interlocutors, the nature of the negotiations under way, and current circumstances. Americans familiar with subcontinental history and politics may receive a more nuanced presentation than newcomers to South Asia. The highly one-sided interpretations Pakistanis provide stress India's unwillingness to accept Pakistan and its other regional neighbours as fully independent states entitled to pursue their own policies and go their own ways. In its crudest form, this approach focuses on dire Indian plots to undo Pakistan by breaking it up into smaller units, or making it a vassal state, or both. This fear is fed by one of the most traumatic events in Pakistan's history, India's support for the breaking away of East Pakistan in 1971. The memory of this time is still vivid.

Aware that Americans are impressed by Indian democracy and contrast it favourably with the congenital weakness of Pakistani civilian political institutions, Pakistanis will at times point to defects in the way India is governed, especially the way its Muslim minority is treated. Pakistanis are well versed in their version of the truth and will have facts and figures ready to support their accounts. They contrast the hierarchical character of the Hindu caste system with the more egalitarian ethos of Islam. Stereotypes frequently found among Pakistanis hold that Indians are more duplicitous, less honest, and less courageous than Pakistanis. Some military officers in years past were fond of saying that vegetarian Indian troops could never hold their own against their carnivorous Pakistani counterparts. Pakistani negotiators and briefers will call attention to India's overwhelming strength, especially its military capabilities, and argue that the bellicose way India has used this superiority in the past indicates that it would be prepared to do so again if the opportunity arose.

The approach Pakistanis use with Americans knowledgeable about South Asia includes these and other points critical of India in a more nuanced form. But even those Pakistanis who do not accept the cruder versions of these stereotypes are eager to persuade the American side that Indians (unlike Pakistanis) are not to be trusted, and that India's claims that they prefer a stable and secure Pakistan as their neighbour are false.

Undercutting Indians in American eyes reflects Pakistani concern that Washington regards India as the more important of the two in ways that disadvantage Pakistan. These apprehensions have always been present, even in the heyday of the U.S.- Pakistan security alliance in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Pakistani fears that the United States would “tilt” toward India were heightened by developments after the Cold War ended. U.S.-Indian relations became substantially stronger, especially during the George W. Bush administration. As the Pakistanis are painfully aware, Washington has come to see India as a rising global power and an incipient economic powerhouse, an attractive partner for American strategists and business people. Some influential Americans view it as a useful Asian counterforce to an aggressive China, with which Pakistan has historically enjoyed a warm relationship. And the demise of the Soviet Union meant that Americans no longer worry about New Delhi's ties to Moscow. The United States and India now sometimes even describe each other as “natural allies,” an enormous reinterpretation of the relationship from the norm of Cold War days.

At the same time, the United States has also drawn closer to Pakistan, for different reasons. These relate almost exclusively to Pakistan's role in the U.S.-led effort to combat al-Qaeda and the Taliban, a part it reluctantly accepted under American pressure following 9/11. Washington can rightly claim that it now enjoys the best relations it has ever simultaneously had with New Delhi and Islamabad. It also can assert more justifiably than it has in the past that U.S. policy in South Asia is not a “zero-sum game” in which improved American relations with India entail weakened ties with Pakistan (and vice versa). Washington plausibly insists that the United States has “de-hyphenated” India and Pakistan in its approach to South Asia. (Ironically, the term “Indo-Pak” once used in describing American policy in the region has now been succeeded by a fresh hyphenation, “Af-Pak,” which the Pakistanis find demeaning and distasteful.)

These assurances have not stilled Pakistani concerns that America will favour India on matters important to Pakistan. Islamabad wants the United States to deal with it as New Delhi's equal, and reacts sharply to any deviation from this norm. For example, the refusal of the U.S. government to consider a civil nuclear deal with Pakistan similar to the one it negotiated with India is seen as clear evidence that the United States has downgraded its ties with Pakistan, and is often referred to as discrimination against Pakistan.

Pakistan's call for equal treatment and its worry that it will not get it are closely related, of course, to its efforts to counterbalance the Indian threat that is still the central element in the country's chronic sense of insecurity. This effort is not limited to Pakistan's dealings with the United States, though Washington has usually been its prime target. Pakistan governments of various political persuasions have looked to China, the oil-rich Arab nations, other Muslim countries, and occasionally even the Soviet Union for diplomatic, political, and economic backing. Pakistan recognises that it is no longer in India's league in terms of overall power, if it ever was. It will continue to look for support from the United States and other outsiders to keep it strong enough to deter the aggressive Indian designs that it considers its primary challenge. Only a marked improvement in its relations with India, including significant steps toward a settlement of their Kashmir dispute, will lead Pakistan to change this policy. Until that unlikely development takes place — and it has eluded the two countries for six decades — Pakistan will continue to see India as a basically hostile neighbour, and its negotiators will probably continue to believe that making India look bad is an important part of their task.

(This is excerpted from How Pakistan Negotiates with the United States: Riding the Roller Coaster by Howard B. and Teresita C. Schaffer, Washington: USIP, 2011. Reprinted by permission. The authors are former U.S. ambassadors, with long years of service in South Asia.)

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