Barack Obamas sojourn to India sixth by a US president, starting today, is causing jitters in Islamabad. Our India-centric foreign policy mandarins and defence analysts are worried that the visit will be detrimental to Pakistans vital interests.
Foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, sounding like a jilted lover in a recent interview with the Time magazine, complained that as a longtime ally and friend, Pakistan has been consistently spurned by the US.
The symbolic meaning of President Obama staying at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai in the first leg of his scheduled visit has not been lost on Islamabad. The fact remains that two years ago non-state actors from Pakistan perpetrated the terrorist attack on the historic hotel, which left 70 people dead.
As PML(N) supremo Mian Nawaz Sharif put it while talking to a SAFMA delegation the other day, even if our intelligence apparatus was not involved why these elements were allowed a free reign to operate from our territory. Reference to terrorism is bound to figure prominently during the visit.
Even before the cold war had ended, Washington had abandoned the myth of treating India and Pakistan on an equal footing. The US no longer considers relations with the two major adversaries in the sub-continent as a zero-sum game.
After 9/11 Pakistan was elevated to a special status in the US strategic calculus, albeit for the wrong reasons. Despite Islamabad being the key to the Afghan imbroglio, the Bush administration continued with its policy of according special treatment to New Delhi.
The optics changed with the advent of President Obama. Suddenly, Islamabad was at the centre stage, while New Delhi started feeling neglected and left out in spite of being accorded the much-coveted civilian nuclear technology deal by Washington.
The Pulitzer Prize winning author Bob Woodward, in his recently published book, Obamas Wars, The Inside Story, has succinctly summed up the relationship between Washington and Islamabad. According to the author, the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI), in a briefing for President Obama two days after his election informed him that, Pakistan was a dishonest partner of the US in the Afghanistan War.
Pakistan was more worried about being encircled by India than being undermined by extremists inside its borders. Woodward goes on to say that General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had no hesitation in informing his US interlocutors that, Ill be the first to admit that Im India-centric. The author adds that this thinking is part of a Pakistani (military) officers DNA.
The trust deficit between Islamabad and Washington has probably somewhat lessened over the past two years of Obamas administration. However, by all accounts, the fundamentals of the relationship remain the same.
Washington sees India, along with China, as an emerging economic giant, with the former seen as a strategic ally while the latter as an adversary. Delhi is increasingly being wooed as an economic and trading partner, a stabilising factor in the region and a bulwark to growing influence of China.
The vast military industrial complex of America is hungry for defence orders. President Obama, after the recent rout of the Democrats in the midterm Congressional elections, is even more desperate to revive the faltering economy in order to ensure his re-election.
Pakistan can purchase a few F-16s on concessional terms from its meagre resources. On the other hand, New Delhi is being lobbied by Washington for a big order of fighter planes. India, thanks to its economic clout, can afford to be choosey and hard sell to the US for economic and strategic gains. Its soft image, thanks to its firmly rooted democracy and vast cultural diversity, appeals to the Americans.
Dependant on the US doles to sustain its economy and defence capability, Pakistan is engaged by Washington for all the wrong reasons. It is viewed more as a necessary irritant, which has to be barely sustained by regular doses of US assistance because of its nuclear status, its strategic importance and its potential to export terrorism. Some in Islamabad are confusing strategic dialogue with being a strategic ally of the US.
During the recently concluded second round of strategic dialogue in Washington, Gen Kayani, who the West insists is the most powerful man in Pakistan, played a pivotal role. When President Obama dropped in for 35 minutes during the dialogue at the White House, he specifically made the point that as long as democracy was intact in Pakistan it was easier for Washington to meet Islamabads defence and economic needs. This does not, however, mean that Washington is happy with the present civilian set-up, which it considers weak, inept and corrupt.
New Delhis wish list during the US presidential visit will include enlisting Washingtons support for an increased role in Afghanistan, especially a foothold in the impending talks with the Taliban. The Americans know that such a role will meet stiff resistance from the Pakistani military. Despite distrusting the ISI, its role is vital for any meaningful talks with the Taliban.
In this context, the US wants the Pakistani Army to move into North Waziristan, which it is loath to do on the pretext that it is already overstretched on its eastern border with India and counter terrorism in Swat, Malakand and South Waziristan.
Islamabad would very much want President Obama to press India on Kashmir. But this is not likely to happen. However, Washington is likely to continue with its past policy of encouraging the Indians to engage Pakistan in talks.
President Obama can offer New Delhi little help in achieving its much-coveted goal of getting a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Chinas support for such a proposal will be hard to come by. Nevertheless, India, owing to its newfound economic status, is already acknowledged as a player on the international scene, which will be further enhanced by President Obamas visit.
To assuage Islamabads apprehensions, President Zardari has been invited for a visit to the USA and President Obama has pledged to visit Pakistan next year. This is an improvement upon President Clintons stopover in Islamabad for a few hours on return from a state visit to India in year 2000. At least, Islamabad has been spared the humiliation this time.
The writer is Editor, Pakistan Today.