The Dynamics of South Asia

Gulf News,May 25, 2005

American policy makers believe that they finally have a new grand strategy for South Asia. The strategy is outlined by Ashley Tellis in a new policy brief published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The US objective is to enable India to become a great power while at the same time assisting Pakistan in attaining security and stability.

“By expanding relations with both states in a differentiated way matched to their geostrategic weights,” Tellis argues, “the Bush administration seeks to assist Pakistan in becoming a successful state while it enables India to secure a trouble-free ascent to great-power status.”

According to Tellis, these objectives would be achieved “through a large economic and military assistance package to Islamabad and through three separate dialogues with New Delhi that will review various challenging issues such as civil nuclear cooperation, space, defence co-production, regional and global security, and bilateral trade.”

In his policy brief, Tellis outlines American thinking and points out some of the potential challenges in realising the new strategic goals.

The major problem I see with an American grand strategy for the region is that it might be based on assumptions about the intentions of regional players that prove incorrect over time. Is Pakistan, for example, reconciled to India’s status as the region’s pre-eminent power? Can India or the United States deal with the inevitable divergence between Pakistan’s stated and actual policies that stem from its multi-layered decision-making process?

This may be the first time the United States is basing its South Asia strategy on positive engagement with Pakistan coupled with a clear acknowledgement of India’s ascendance. In the past, American policy makers have been afraid that support for one would upset the other and, in fact, it did. Right now, General Pervez Musharraf appears amen-able to acceptance of Indian concerns. But he lacks a popular mandate. The possibility of a populist politician whipping up
anti-Indian sentiment, and thereby jeopardising the current peace process, cannot be ruled out.

It is true that Pakistan’s only powerful institution, the military, appears to support Musharraf’s policy of securing US assistance and engaging in dialogue with India. But there is no evidence that the military has given the traditional perception of its role as the only obstacle to “Indian hegemony”. Musharraf’s rise to power was enabled by his hard-line stance towards India. Even now, he gives mixed signals about what he has in his mind as the realistic basis of stable relations in South Asia.

In 1954, soon after signing up Pakistan as an American ally, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles tried to persuade legendary columnist Walter Lippmann of the value of his new strategic partner. Dulles told Lippmann, “I’ve got to get some real fighting men into the south of Asia. The only Asians who can really fight are the Pakistanis. That’s why we need them in the alliance. We could never get along without the Gurkhas.”

“But Foster,” Lippmann countered, “the Gurkhas aren’t Pakistanis, they’re Indians.” Of course, Lippmann was also wrong as the Gurkhas are from Nepal but that is less important than the lack of knowledge of the US Secretary of State. “Well,” responded Dulles, unperturbed by such details, “they may not be Pakistanis but they’re Muslims.”
“No, I’m afraid they’re not Muslims, either; they’re Hindus,” Lippmann stated.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been described by Ashley Tellis as the main author of the new US South Asia strategy, is clearly better informed about the world than Dulles was in the 1950s. But Washington could be basing its new strategic plan for South Asia on optimistic expectations and mistaken assumptions about Pakistan just as Dulles did.
Pakistan’s military leaders have historically been willing to adjust their priorities to fit within the parameters of immediate US global concerns. The purpose has been to ensure the flow of military and economic aid from the United States. Contrary to the American assumption that aid translates into leverage, Pakistan’s military rulers have always managed to take the aid without ever fully giving the United States what it desires.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Ayoub Khan oversold Pakistan’s willingness to help the United States in containing Communist expansion. Pakistan provided significant intelligence gathering facilities for a while but never provided the “centrally positioned landing site” the Americans sought. Zia ul-Haq’s cooperation in bleeding the Soviets in Afghanistan came with Pakistan’s plan to install a client regime in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal.

Before embarking on a new plan for “remaking South Asia”, US policy makers would do well to understand the dynamics that have driven the region’s players since they first got involved.