Indo-U.S. dialogue on Pakistan?

THE UNITED States cannot force India into an engagement with Pakistan that it does not want. And New Delhi cannot engineer a change in Islamabad's behaviour without help from Washington. These two simple realities and their common stake in a moderate and modernising Pakistan demand a substantive conversation between the Indian Government and the Bush administration before a dialogue between New Delhi and Islamabad could begin.

If New Delhi and Washington do not arrive at a shared approach on Pakistan, it is inevitable that the subcontinent will drift towards a renewed military confrontation this summer. An important casualty of this confrontation could be the upward trend in Indo-U.S. relations that has been seen under the Bush administration. The Pakistan factor is once again clouding Indo-U.S. relations, amid growing frustrations in both New Delhi and Washington.

In India, there is rising disenchantment at the American unwillingness or inability to deliver Pakistan on cross-border terrorism. This is compounded by renewed calls from Washington for a dialogue with Pakistan. New Delhi says it stood down in the military confrontation with Islamabad last summer following assurances from the highest level in Washington that the Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, had promised to put an end to infiltration of terrorists on a permanent basis. Having failed to get Gen. Musharraf to keep his promise, the Government argues, the U.S. has no business to push India into an engagement with Pakistan.

Conceding that Pakistan-sponsored infiltration has not come down, the Bush administration says it is maintaining the pressure on Islamabad to uphold the commitments made last summer to end cross-border terrorism. It is also urging Pakistan to discourage acts of violence and terrorism in Kashmir. But Washington is concerned that the absence of any engagement between India and Pakistan leaves the initiative entirely in the hands of terrorists, who could spark another round of military tensions in the subcontinent which could turn nuclear. Avoiding such a conflict has always been at the top of American priorities in the region.

The only way of breaking this stalemate is in an intensive round of Indo-U.S. consultations on regional security. Such a dialogue must include issues relating to both substance and process. On substance, the key divergence relates to the assessment of the role of the armed forces and the importance of Gen. Musharraf in moving Pakistan in a positive direction. On process, the key questions relate to sequence and timing of a series of steps, such as a ceasefire that India and Pakistan could adopt in managing their difficult relations.

The U.S. believes that Gen. Musharraf and Pakistan's armed forces are the key to gaining Pakistani cooperation in the war against terrorism. India argues that the source of the problem lies with Gen. Musharraf and the compulsive hostility of the armed forces towards India. The Government points to the contradiction between the proclaimed American objectives of stability in Afghanistan and the improvement of Indo-Pak. relations, on the one hand, and the enduring links of the Pakistani Army with the forces of extremism, on the other. Despite the assessment in Washington that Pakistan is a stalwart ally in the war against terrorism, and an occasional "gift" of wanted terrorists from Gen. Musharraf, the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda are regrouping inside the Pakistani territory. This could not happen without the connivance of at least a section of the Pakistani establishment. Similarly, despite the many entreaties of the U.S. and the U.K., the military in Pakistan continues to support violence and infiltration in Jammu and Kashmir.

The U.S. cannot achieve its regional objectives without a more forceful policy towards Pakistan on the question of terrorism in Afghanistan and India. To suggest that the U.S. does not have enough leverage is not credible at a time when Washington has stepped up its economic assistance to Islamabad and written off a billion dollars of its debt. The apparent American unwillingness to confront Pakistan on any issue raises deeper concerns in New Delhi about the nature of the emerging relationship between Washington and Islamabad.

The meek American response to Pakistan's brazen nuclear and missile cooperation with North Korea confirms the worst suspicions about American intentions in New Delhi. And a return to the tone of "even-handedness'' in the public statements from the U.S. State Department about the situation in the subcontinent brings out all the old bile in New Delhi about extraordinary American tolerance of the violation of all norms on terrorism and the proliferation by Pakistan. Amid the slowdown of progress in bilateral relations between India and the U.S., America's apparent benign attitude towards Pakistan raises the threat of a return to the past in the triangular relations between New Delhi, Washington and Islamabad.

India has many good reasons to complain about apparent American double standards in the war against terrorism. But it would be unproductive for New Delhi to return to the past unproductive mode of public argumentation with Washington. India, too, needs the U.S. in making Pakistan adopt a new political course. India's engagement with Pakistan has come to nothing in the last few years. And on its own, it is not in a position to force Pakistan to give up cross-border terrorism as evident from the experience at Lahore and Agra.

It was only due to the intense Anglo-American involvement in the management of the crisis last year that Gen. Musharraf came up with verbal assurances on not allowing terrorism from Pakistani soil in the name of Kashmir (January 2002), and ending infiltration on a permanent basis (June 2002). India still needs the cooperation of Washington and London to make these promises a reality. While India is right in saying that the Anglo-American powers have not done enough, it would not be accurate to suggest that they have done nothing at all. Their effort to defuse the Indo-Pak. crisis last summer saw a significant evolution of the Anglo-American position on Kashmir — in relation to both the internal and external dimensions. Their endorsement of the elections in the State as free and fair, their support to the new Government in Srinagar, and the readiness to hold Pakistan responsible for terrorism and violence in Kashmir, and their insistence on the sanctity of the Line of Control are all of great value to India.

The way out of an impending war between India and Pakistan requires, first and foremost, a serious engagement between New Delhi and Washington. The two sides need to have a frank dialogue on the internal situation in Pakistan and on how best to nudge it in the right direction. There has been too much public posturing by both sides and too little conversation on changing the dynamics of the triangular relationship. Absent, too, has been transparency on each side's dealings with Pakistan. Without regenerating a level of political comfort and trust between India and the U.S. it would be impossible to conceive and orchestrate a series of reciprocal steps between India and Pakistan to defuse the imminent conflict in the region. Once India and the U.S. begin such a dialogue, the questions will relate to America demonstrating greater realism on Pakistan and India coming up with a more credible strategy towards its recalcitrant neighbour. Washington cannot hope that mere statements will make Pakistan end cross-border terrorism in Afghanistan and India. New Delhi cannot convince the world that all its options short of a war have been exhausted in relation to Pakistan. It should not be impossible for India and the U.S. to come up with a number of agreed steps that could alter the nature of Indo-Pak. relations.