Obama’s presidential legacy in South Asia is abysmally poor

The latent India-Pakistan tensions have erupted following a disclosure by the Pakistani envoy to New Delhi Abdul Basit on Thursday that the dialogue between the two countries stands ‘suspended’.

Pakistan feels Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) has outwitted Nawaz Sharif by exploiting the latter’s genuine interest in a normalization process with India

Pakistan feels Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) has outwitted Nawaz Sharif by exploiting the latter’s genuine interest in normalizing ties with India

High Commissioner Basit articulated something that the Indian side has been refusing to admit. India is furious that the cat is out of the bag.

Certain things must be noted at the outset. For a start, Pakistan’s domestic politics has lately entered a very delicate phase and the civilian leadership has virtually retreated from making major foreign and security policy decisions.

High Commissioner Basit’s remarks probably imly it. A perception has gained ground within the Pakistani establishment that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has outwitted Sharif by exploiting the latter’s genuine interest in a normalization process with India.

Curiously, a somewhat analogous situation exists in India, too. Dialogue with Pakistan is a disagreeable proposition for Modi’s hardcore supporters, the right-wing Hindu nationalists, many amongst them rooting for Pakistan’s dismemberment.

In reality, though, Modi government has been following a ‘muscular’ policy toward Pakistan – ‘talk, talk, fight, fight’.

On the one hand, Modi has been making extravagant ‘overtures’ to Sharif, which are terrific in optics. But alongside, he leads a robust diplomatic and political offensive to ‘isolate’ Pakistan on the issue of terrorism – be it in Washington or the UN, and even in Beijing – or by undercutting Pakistan’s pivotal ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

This diplomatic offensive projects India as the injured party, which is nonetheless amenable to reason and remains open with seamless patience to dialogue even after repeated Pakistani provocations such as the recent attack on the Indian Air Force’s forward base at Pathankot.

Pakistan assesses that behind Modi’s diplomatic engagement of Sharif, New Delhi is pursuing a hidden agenda. A recent ‘spy’ incident allegedly involving a senior Indian naval officer operating under cover from across the border in Iran, underscored this belief.

The Pakistani military and security establishment is paranoid that the Indian agencies have spread their tentacles deep inside Pakistan and are systematically undermining and destabilizing that country. To quote Talat Masood, a voice of reason and moderation in Pakistani discourses,

  • On the surface, Prime Minister Modi tries to give an impression of improving relations with Islamabad. In sharp contrast, his government is literally pursuing policies that aim at deliberately undermining and destabilizing the state. The double speak, combined with a well-orchestrated campaign of defaming Pakistan at international forums and the world’s capitals, has become the norm.

Pakistan probably sees devils where none exists, but then, perceptions matter and such perceptions might not have arisen if Manmohan Singh were the captain of the Indian ship. But the boss happens to be Narendra Modi who has a controversial past of being ‘anti-Muslim’, ‘anti-Pakistan’.

The Manichean fears have surged in the Pakistani mind. Meanwhile, India’s ‘public diplomacy’ has also assumed a cutting edge lately.

In the Indian capital on April 8, a top Baluchi secessionist leader Naela Qadri Blaoch delivered a talk titled “Baluchistan at Crossroads – The World Needs a Conscience” from a prestigious platform that often works in concert with the foreign-policy establishment at the Track 2 level.

Are the Indian authorities showing open support for the separatists in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province where a bloody insurgency has been raging for decades?  There are no easy answers.

In sum, Modi is going through the motions of a charm offensive on the diplomatic front vis-à-vis Prime Minister Sharif, where the initiative rests in his hands. He is entirely at liberty to close or open the tap as it suits him.

On the contrary, Sharif finds himself in an untenable position, being ridiculed as naïve or impulsive by allowing himself to be led up the garden path by Modi.

Modi may have lethally wounded Sharif – by wading into the latter’s existential struggle with the Pakistani military.

This complex backdrop remains incomplete without factoring in the deepening crisis in Pakistan’s internal security. Even the heartland of Punjab is in turmoil.

Put differently, the Pakistani military and security establishment will see renewed logic in retaining its ‘strategic assets’ against India for a foreseeable future to wage an asymmetrical war.

It is entirely conceivable that some terrorist strike on Indian soil might trigger a sequence of events bringing the two countries to the brink of war.

Ominously, Pakistan continues to develop tactical nuclear weapons for use on the battlefield against India. Tactical nuclear weapons are low-yield, short-range nuclear missiles designed for use against opposing troops on the battlefield.

Pakistan developed them as a way to counter India’s conventional military superiority in response to India’s development of the so-called “Cold Start” military doctrine, which calls for using small and limited excursions into Pakistani territory to respond to Islamabad-sponsored terrorist attacks.

In February, while providing a worldwide threat assessment to the US House Armed Services Committee, Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent R. Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said:

  • We (US) anticipate that Pakistan will continue [its] development of new delivery systems, including cruise missiles and close-range ‘battlefield’ nuclear weapons to augment its existing ballistic missiles.

The US analysts estimate that Pakistan’s Strategic Forces have begun incorporating tactical missiles into service since late-2013. Without doubt, the US is gravely concerned.

While wrapping up the Nuclear Security Summit, President Barack Obama urged both India and Pakistan to exercise restraint over military doctrines and nuclear arsenal, which he termed as the key to peace and stability in the Indian sub-continent.

The onus is on India as the pre-eminent regional power to take the lead to calm the tensions. But, fundamentally, Indian policies lack vision and the old hackneyed narrative refuses to die.

Many in India can’t even comprehend that their triumphalism over Pakistan’s deepening instability stems from a tunnel vision. Doing to others an act that one would rather not have done to oneself reveals actually a powerful internal conflict.

India today is facing a powerful internal conflict between the forces of secularism and of militant Hindu nationalism, and the latter thrives on the xenophobia that the India-Pakistan tensions engender.

Most certainly, there should be greater international involvement in restraining the two nuclear powers, and the US is best placed to do that. But then, life is real.

However, the lure of the Indian market and the urgency to get India to bandwagon with the US’ rebalance in Asia are today’s overriding considerations in the American calculus. As for Pakistan, Washington prioritizes the strategic necessity to counter China’s One Belt, One Road.

Suffice it to say, while the US claims that it is a stakeholder in India-Pakistan amity, it is unwilling to push the two countries in that direction, despite realizing that left to themselves, the two regional adversaries lack the political will to resolve their differences peacefully in a spirit of give and take. Paradoxically, the US’ regional priorities only contribute to the India-Pakistan tensions.

Obama, with all his ingenuity, has failed to reconcile this contradiction in the US’ South Asia strategy, and it makes a poor presidential legacy because in the ultimate analysis, an India-Pakistan nuclear flashpoint could threaten international security far more seriously than the ‘breakout’ time available for Tehran to assemble an atomic bomb.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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