Guiding U.S. relations with India and Pakistan—two rivals with sometimes deep tensions over terrorism, territorial issues, and nuclear arms—will be among the most complicated foreign policy tasks facing the incoming Obama administration.
During both the Clinton and Bush administrations, South Asia has been moving closer to the core of U.S. foreign policy, for reasons of both hazard and opportunity. The tribal areas of Pakistan are now regarded by the U.S. intelligence community as the single greatest source of international terrorism in the world.
Pakistan, the recipient of some $10 billion in U.S. aid during the Bush years, is being pressured on an array of fronts to combat Islamic militancy as a security threat and as a political movement; shore up civilian rule and prod the powerful military to retreat from politics; and focus on practical state-building and development to overcome entrenched poverty. President Bush has called bringing Pakistan, once a supporter of the Taliban, into the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition after 9/11 one of his administration's major achievements.
Yet Pakistan will, in all likelihood, face more U.S. pressure in the future, particularly after a militant group supported at times by Pakistan's security services has been blamed for the deadly Mumbai terrorist bombings. The Pakistani government will have to accept the dangers of denying sanctuary along the border with Afghanistan to the Taliban insurgents fighting U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan if that war is to be brought to a successful close. As a candidate, Barack Obama highlighted that aim as a top priority and spoke of building a regional approach to accomplish it.
Pakistan and India, both successors of British colonial holdings, also remain at loggerheads over Indian control of the region of Jammu and Kashmir. The two sides have clashed several times, and the dispute has, to many in the region, taken on a religious cast, pitting overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan against majority Hindu India. Greater dialogue between Islamabad and New Delhi has, in recent years, helped manage tensions over the fate of those territories. But in part through past help from Pakistani intelligence, the Kashmir issue has become a rallying point for extremist attacks on India, including last November's three-day terror assault on the Indian commercial center of Mumbai that left 164 people dead.
Both countries are also armed with nuclear weapons, imbuing the region's interconnected disputes with some risk of catastrophe. A rogue Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan, raised nuclear worries even more by spreading atomic weapons technology to countries attempting to develop the capacity to make bombs.
At the same time, though, U.S. relations with India have taken a major step forward. The Bush administration sought to end decades of political distance and forge a strategic partnership with India.
As the world's most populous democracy, India is increasingly seen in Washington as a natural friend, if not a formal ally. With a liberalizing economy that has made huge strides in recent years, India has attained a trajectory that should make it one of the world's great powers during this century, lending weight to the ranks of moderate, democratic states and serving as a hedge against the rise of China, if that is deemed necessary in the future.
With an eye on managing great-power relations, former U.S. official and Carnegie Endowment scholar Ashley Tellis wrote last year in The Washington Quarterly, "Bush and his advisers saw the necessity for a transformed relationship with a large democratic state such as India from the very beginning."
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.
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