US Grand Strategy for South Asia

The Nation (Pakistan),May 25, 2005

American policy makers believe that they finally have new grand strategy toward South Asia. The strategy is outlined by Ashley Tellis in a new Policy brief published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The U.S. 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, defense 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 realizing 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 U.S. 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 amenable to acceptance of Indian concerns. But the general lacks a popular mandate. The possibility of a populist politician whipping up anti-Indian sentiment, and thereby jeopardizing 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 U.S. assistance and engaging in dialogue with India. But there is no evidence that the military has given up the traditional perception of its own 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.


Last week, General Musharraf indicated his willingness to take into account India’s sensitivities on a Kashmir settlement based on religious division. It was the first time a Pakistani ruler had indicated his willingness to overcome the strong sentiment over the 1947 partition that has divided the two countries. During the last 58 years, Indians have felt compelled to delegitimize the wisdom of partition while Pakistanis have insisted on defending the “logic of partition” as the basis of their nation’s existence. It would be a major breakthrough in India-Pakistan relations if General Musharraf could transform his random thoughts about a new equation in South Asia into state policy. His inability to do so indicates that either he faces serious resistance to these ideas or voices them to please his Indian and American audiences without really having given up Pakistan’s traditional policy paradigm.

Until a year and a half ago, General Musharraf made it plain that he did not trust or like India and the rhetoric of the peace process initiated under American encouragement notwithstanding, there is no explanation for why he should have changed his mind. In an interview with the Washington Post in May 2002, General Musharraf said that India wanted “to destabilize Pakistan” and “to isolate Kashmir and then crush whatever is happening with all their force.” Asked if India wanted “a stable modernizing Pakistan as its neighbor”, he replied, “Not at all. They want a subservient Pakistan which remains subservient to them.” If, as is being suggested in Washington, the new American strategy towards South Asia is to aid Pakistan but at the same time recognize India’s pre-eminence one wonders to what extent that would be acceptable to General Musharraf and his fellow military commanders.

That India is the much larger power in South Asia has never been in doubt. Pakistan’s traditional objection has not been to the fact of India’s size but its implications. Pakistani ideologues have argued that India acting as a great power is unacceptable to them. Pakistan has tried to make common cause with other South Asian nations to defy Indian pre-eminence. Efforts have been repeatedly made to define Pakistan as a Middle Eastern or Central Asian power, to avoid being “boxed in” by India in South Asia. A U.S. policy that rests on facilitating India’s emergence as a great power is hardly one that fits in with this entrenched way of thinking. Could we, then, be headed for another round of U.S.-Pakistan alliance based on the two sides working on different assumptions or divergent expectations?

In 1954, soon after signing up Pakistan as an American ally, U.S. Secretary of State of 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 U.S. Secretary of State. “Well,” responded Dulles, unperturbed by such details, “they may not be Pakistanis but they’re Moslems.”

“No, I’m afraid they’re not Moslems, either; they’re Hindus,” Lippmann stated.

“No matter,” the secretary of state retorted and proceeded to lecture Lippmann for half an hour on the virtues of SEATO in stemming communism in Asia, writes a biographer of Walter Lippmann.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been described by Ashley Tellis as the main author of the new U.S. South Asia strategy is clearly better informed about the world than John Foster Dulles was in the 1950s. The U.S. has been extensively engaged with the world now for over five decades. There is a much larger U.S. foreign policy and intelligence gathering establishment and a re-run of the type of exchange that took place between Dulles and Lippmann in 1954 is unlikely. But the U.S. 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 U.S. 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, Ayub Khan over-sold 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 U.S. 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. The U.S. never controlled Pakistan’s ISI, or far that matter the Mujahideen, even though it paid for their operations. Pakistan’s role in the Jihad against the Soviet Union also inspired Pakistani Jihadis to expand Jihad into Kashmir.

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