Such has been the shift in U.S. policy toward India that Bush, with eventual congressional backing, reversed some three decades of nonproliferation policy barring nuclear cooperation with New Delhi. A deal to permit civilian nuclear trade—opposed by many nonproliferation specialists—became the cornerstone of a new strategic relationship, say U.S. officials. Islamabad was pointedly left out. Washington and New Delhi also found significant common ground on dealing with terrorism after 9/11, a posture that has found fresh impetus with the Mumbai attacks. U.S.-Indian military ties are growing as well.
Obama will find the strengthened U.S.-Indian connection an asset in trying to ease tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad, but the going will be tough. U.S. officials have been pressing Islamabad to probe and crack down on the Pakistan-based group thought to be behind the Mumbai operation—Lashkar-e-Taiba. India has given Pakistani authorities a packet of evidence on a "conspiracy" it alleges includes former Pakistani military officials said to have helped train the terrorists. Pakistan is unlikely to comply with India's demands that suspects be tried in India.
In counseling restraint and caution from India, U.S. officials are in a delicate position. U.S. forces have had presidential authority to attack suspected militants in Pakistan with pilotless drones and special operations teams. But the U.S. involvement in strikes inside Pakistan is deeply unpopular there, making cooperation with U.S. initiatives politically difficult.
The Obama administration will want Pakistan to stay focused on combating the Taliban and its supporters rather than on its disputes with India. Pakistan's recent shift of some troops from areas fronting Afghanistan to those closer to India goes precisely against what Obama and his foreign policy team are expected to seek.
And in pushing Pakistan to support the United States in Afghanistan and on other problems, Obama will have the extra difficulty of needing to avoid actions that weaken a fragile civilian government. The country was roiled by the traumatic assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, while the civilians returned to power only last year after the resignation of what started as a military government led by Gen. Pervez Musharraf.
The civilian politicians will need all the help they can get in overcoming the legacy of military rule by him and other generals in the past. "For the first time, Pakistan's politicians are united in the goal of making Pakistani democracy work," says Pakistan's ambassador in Washington, Husain Haqqani.
For the new administration, South Asia will provide no shortage of complexity—or the high international stakes to match.
- Read more about the perilous world that Obama inherits.
- Read about Iran's nuclear challenge.
- Read about containing North Korea's nuclear breakout.
- Read about how Afghanistan will be a hard war for Obama to win.
- Read about whether Obama can begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
- Read about how China will test the Obama administration.
- Read about why Russia may become a big problem for Obama.
- Read about the multiple crises in the troubled Middle East.
- Read about European expectations for Obama's presidency.
- Read about how Obama could change Cuba policy.
- Read about Canada's and Mexico's wish lists for Obama.