US strategic relationship with India and Pakistan


It is fascinating to watch how the United States navigates between arch enemies India and Pakistan in terms of its foreign policy dictated by the over-arching objective of containing a rising China. The US deals with India and Pakistan differently because the nature of India-China relationship (hostile) is different from that of Pakistan-China relationship (friendly).

The length of the India-China border is much bigger than the length of the Pakistan-China border. This has given rise to several skirmishes and border tensions remain just under the surface. China lays claim to a big chunk of Indian territory in the northeast and India claims Aksai Chin protruding into China. 

Smaller states should be wary of overtures of friendship coming from big powers because the latter change directions at whim. When the US and USSR were at each other’s throats the former befriended Pakistan to contain the USSR. SEATO, CENTO and RCD were created during the height of the Cold War. However, India-US relationship was uninspiring then because India was perceived to be in the Soviet orbit. But as the USSR got mired in Afghanistan, the US started favouring India.

After 9/11 the US conveniently forgot the antidote to USSR it had a hand in creating the Taliban and, in Don Quixote fashion, attacked Afghanistan. It failed to learn the lessons of history by getting involved in an intractable and low-intensity warfare. Contemporaneously the relationship between the US and India began to thaw. Perhaps the demise of the Soviet Union made India more pragmatic in a unipolar world. India’s soft power, of which America’s intellectuals were enamoured, was definitely a factor. Continuity of democratic traditions was another. But this is not all.

India held aloft the mantle of non-alignment when Yugoslavia broke up and Egypt made peace with Israel under US auspices. Nehru, Nasser and Tito were the three stalwarts in this camp. This helped India gain more influence inAfrica, Asia and Latin America.   

With decolonisation came democracy helped along by the end of the cold war. Unfortunately, Pakistan regressed, especially during Gen. Ziaul Haq’s regime. Friends of India, including the American press, took Pakistan to task. US-Pakistan relationship headed south. The US got busy with putting the genie (Taliban) back inside the bottle after the Soviet debacle and in this difficult endeavour the US sought Pakistan’s help.

Millions of Afghan refugees had poured across the permeable border after the Soviet invasion. This was aided by cross-border ties of tribal kinship within the ethnic Pashtuns. A substantial number still remains in Pakistan.

Growing Islamisation inside the country, Afghan war at its doorstep, and the rush of refugees pushed Pakistan up the wall. Militants found Pakistan fertile territory; armaments became a cottage industry. In order to appease the US, not least to keep aid flow going, Pakistan started playing a double-game: covertly aiding sections of the Taliban while at the same time asking for US help to police therestless border areas, smidgens of which remain beyond Federal government authority. This duplicitous strategy did not sit well with successive US administrations.

To complicate matters, successive Afghan governments courted India to the consternation of Pakistan. Despite being co-religionists, Pakistan has a rocky relationship with its tumultuous neighbour.

With the opening up of the Indian economy in the early nineties US businesses saw a great opening for trade and investment. Military ties, notably nuclear cooperation, followed. India grew more rapidly than did Pakistan this century. Moreover, India projects more power in the Indian Ocean. The only wrinkle that exists in US-India ties is trade and tariffs. Americans are quite aware of the benefits of hosting thousands of successful tax-paying Indians in academia, the professions and business.

With the US now negotiating a peaceful exit from Afghanistan, Pakistan will surely try to twist America’s arm because of its leverage with the Taliban. The lesson is that the United States needs India and Pakistan in equal measures, but in different ways to tackle the dragon.

*Raihan Amin is a consultant, CSQE