A benign arbitrator?


Study of the policy implications of four conflicts in the subcontinent and the U.S.’s role in them

FOUR CRISES AND A PEACE PROCESS — American Engagement in South Asia: P.R. Chari, Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema and Stephen P. Cohen; HarperCollins Publishers, 1 A Hamilton House, Connaught Place, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 495.

In a rare public comment recently, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India, Shahid Malik, told an American interlocutor, “My advice is to let both Pakistan and India conduct our relations bilaterally. We are quite capable of doing so. The dialogue process is proceeding well and is on track.” (The Hindu, April 21) This came in response to a statement – by no one other than the former U.S. Ambassador to India, Robert Blackwill – that since Pakistan’s future was “so highly uncertain”, the U.S. and Indian governments needed to “talk in a very private way about that subject.”

Indeed, as the United Progressive Alliance Government reviews its four years in power, any long time observer will agree that a kind of predictability may be descending on the run of India-Pakistan relationship. Credit must go to the professional team in the foreign policy establishment and to the political leadership that kept a vision in view. Intractable differences won’t go away, but there is room for optimism that a climate of trust and confidence is achievable. Malik, a gifted diplomat with robust experience in the India beat, underscored just such a hope, which must be welcomed.

Now comes the difficult question: how has this come about? Success breeds claimants to parenthood. Washington insists that it provided the impetus for Pakistan’s “continued efforts to reduce tensions and reconcile with India,” to quote Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice. The U.S. maintains it has been a benign mediator between two impetuous South Asian nuclear adversaries prone to frequent outbursts of choler and volatile behaviour.

American engagement in South Asia is a complex subject. One thing is clear. The U.S’s so-called “de-hyphenated” policy towards India and Pakistan has brought it rich dividends. Its influence in the region touches an all-time high. But in actuality how far did it contribute to keeping tensions in India-Pakistan relations under check? This recent book titled Four Crisis and a Peace Process: American engagement in South Asia, a unique U.S-Indian-Pakistani joint study, makes a gingerly effort to seek an answer.

Four crises

The book takes four major crises in Indo-Pakistan relations as case studies — Brassstacks military manoeuvres (1986-87), “increased turmoil” in J&K (1990), Kargil conflict (1999) and the border confrontation (2001-02). The format of the book is interesting as three prominent think tankers in the seminar circuit — P.R. Chari, Pervaiz Iqbal Cheema and Stephen P. Cohen — dissect each case study, analysing its causes and the “decision making dilemmas” of the leaders of India and Pakistan.

The authors hand out the devastating judgement that the Brassstacks was a big ‘tamasha’, which was “planned by the innovative Sundarji with the encouragement of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi,” the ultimate motives of which still remain unclear. The 1990 crisis also had no clear strategic objective. Conceivably, “an aura of crisis” was deliberately generated by the “permanent bureaucracy” in India and Pakistan, with intelligence services “on the loose” and the foreign affairs and defence bureaucracies “losing confidence in the quality of leadership provided by their respective prime ministers” — V.P. Singh and Benazir Bhutto.

The U.S. hardly played any significant role in defusing the two crises, which were essentially an amalgam of incompetence, opportunism, mixed signals and domestic political disorder. Yet, Washington routinely takes credit for the stand down. The Brasstacks had no overt nuclear component and even in the 1990 crisis, there was no evidence to suggest that the two countries mobilised their tiny nuclear assets.

American engagement

It is with the Kargil conflict that the scenario radically changes. With the BJP Government in power jettisoning the “fetish of bilateralism pursued with almost religious fervour” until then by India, and encouraging American intervention, the role of the U.S. becomes explicit and ubiquitous. A charitable explanation could be that the BJP Government sought to use the U.S. as a vehicle to apply indirect pressure on Pakistan. We would never quite know the full picture, but the result is plain to see. Washington never looked back. It got embedded in the geopolitics of South Asia.

The pattern continued during the 2001-02 crisis (following the terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament) with the BJP Government striving to repeat a “lesson learned during the Kargil conflict: how to coerce the U.S. to pressure Pakistan.” Of course, as an exercise in coercive diplomacy, Operation Parakram turned out to be a farce. The BJP Government misjudged the extent of international support and the former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s “serendipitous” political style sapped whatever strategic purpose remained behind the Indian build-up and the BJP leaders’ threatening rhetoric. However, American activism peaked in a fashion that becomes the BJP Government’s parting gift to the subcontinent’s geopolitics.

The “main thesis” of the book is that the U.S. will remain deeply involved in the subcontinent since it has “an abiding interest in preventing crises between New Delhi and Islamabad” by “urging caution” and enjoining them to “normalise their relations, continue the peace process, negotiate measures for reducing nuclear risk, and refrain from deploying their nuclear arsenals.” The book concludes, “Washington will view askance efforts by either India or Pakistan to embark on any future adventurism.” The book’s main flaw lies in its failure to connect Washington’s mediatory role with the overall U.S. global strategy against the backdrop of the rapidly changing international system. That missing link leaves a feeling that the narrative remains incomplete.

India-Pakistan dialogue

Meanwhile, the authors conclude that the India-Pakistan composite dialogue is at best a “wary engagement, possibly a temporary truce; at worst, it is the calm before another storm.” They predict that “the next crisis will be unique… it will be embedded in its own historical framework and will work itself through according to its logic.” In short, they go along with Blackwill’s quiet confidence that Washington’s diplomacy will soon be in demand to restrain the excesses of the two competing nuclear powers in the subcontinent prone to aberrant decision-making and adventurism.

By getting between India and Pakistan, Washington has done hugely well for itself. If the authors are to be believed, India and Pakistan with their rickety political structure and haphazard decision-making will truly and royally make a nuisance of themselves, which, of course, leaves benevolent old Uncle Sam no option but to keep them in a corner in his cabin under his watchful eyes.

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