Opinion: High stakes for the trio of tension — US, India, Pakistan

NEW DELHI, India — Imagine a high-stakes, billion-dollar poker game that just doesn’t end. The players keep upping the ante and the power balance continually shifts. A scene out of fantasy poker you say, but in real life an appropriate analogy for the new great game being played out between the United States, India and Pakistan.

The results of a high-level, week-long bilateral meeting between U.S. and Pakistan have been debated and discussed endlessly here in India. The initial paranoia that Pakistan would walk away with a U.S.-Pakistani commercial nuclear energy deal, much like the one structured between the U.S. and India, gave way to relief when the summit ended without it.

No matter, though. This is just the end of yet another episode typifying the tense and distrustful relationship among the trio. India, Pakistan and the United States, alternatively talk the language of peaceful co-existence but their individual vested interests in the region reflect a lack of political will toward any such outcome.

Of late the South Asian state department has been encouraging open and constructive dialogue between India and Pakistan. Quite apart from their own existential issues the two appear to be pawns of U.S. real politick, elsewhere described as two countries on a U.S. seesaw.

Much of the consternation in India was the fussing over the Pakistani contingent, in particular the military and intelligence brass. During the Bush administration and the early days of the Obama presidency, India witnessed a positive change in Washington’s stance toward it. But the great game with Afghanistan as proxy is being played out yet again.

It all began at the Afghanistan Conference in London in January. Any exit strategy from Afghanistan, it was decided there, would involve reconciliation with the Taliban. That, the gurus in D.C. decided, would necessarily involve Pakistan. And whom should the U.S. engage to begin this process? The democratically elected widower and Mr. 10 to 50 percent Asif Ali Zardari, the party-controlled prime minister, or the ever-stable masters of dictatorship, the boys in uniform?

As all Pakistanis cynically expected, the U.S. rolled out the red carpet for General Ashfaq Kayani, the army chief and Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shuja Pasha, the head of the much-admired Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI. (The U.S. administration, meanwhile wondered why the Pakistani public was so hostile toward it.) This signal of a looming return to dictatorship aside, the Pakistani establishment has been thrilled to be back on good terms with the big boss. And despite Indian concerns over the possibility of a nuclear deal with the U.S., Pakistanis likely never expected any such deal.

Anne Patterson, the current U.S. ambassador in Pakistan, had sewn the seeds for the potential when she said, earlier on, non-proliferation concerns were quite severe. "I think we are beginning to pass those and this is a scenario that we are going to explore.” That a somewhat twisted and gnarled foot made its way through the door of U.S. diplomacy was good enough for the Pakistanis. This is why, at the end of the tete-a-tete, the foreign minister returned to Islamabad a “happy man.”

“Across the border in India, folks breathed a sigh of relief. The nation’s most respected daily, The Hindu opined, “There is no need to worry, as some have begun to do, that this week’s talks in Washington mark the beginning of a new phase in the re-hyphenation of Delhi and Islamabad.”

But whether the U.S. is capable of a simultaneous, fair and balanced relationship with both India and Pakistan remains to be seen.

At the same time as India questioned the warming (yet again) of U.S.-Pak ties, Indian investigating authorities have been struggling to gain access to David Headley, the American of half-Pakistani extraction, who is the alleged mastermind behind the terror attacks in Mumbai in November 2008 that left over 300 dead. India has long accused the Pakistani intelligence authorities of guiding the Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant outfit that is focused on extending militancy in Kashmir.

India insists that Pakistan is not serious about its role in dismantling the terror networks that its intelligence bodies created. Headley, India believes, can give exact information about the ties between the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment and the terror network in Pakistan. Yet, U.S. authorities will not give them access to Headley, who was also allegedly a mole for the DEA. The intrigue continues.

India accuses the U.S. of protecting Headley to save Pakistan. Pakistan accuses India of water theft, of operating illicitly in its western province of Balochistan and for using its too many diplomatic outposts in Afghanistan to destabilize it. Moreover, Pakistan is deeply uncomfortable with the close ties forged between the Karzai administration and New Delhi. India claims that Pakistan is not seriously fighting terror despite the Mumbai attacks of November 2008 in which over 300 people were killed. Many of the leaders symbolically arrested in the aftermath of those attacks are now free at home.

In advance of talks with the U.S., Pakistan nabbed a number of high-level Taliban leaders, which critics claim is Pakistan’s strategic strategy to maintain its importance. Without Pakistan’s help in defeating the Taliban, the U.S. feels lost and isolated in a region where the public is decidedly hostile to America, no matter how much taxpayer money is pumped into the country — probably because not a single cent of that money has seen an improvement in the common person’s situation in Pakistan.

Since 9/11, the U.S. has given over $17 billion in aid to Pakistan, almost all of it military aid. A further injection of $7.5 billion in civilian aid over the next five years has been announced. This, to India, is merely evidence of continued U.S. patronage of Pakistan’s military strength.

Given the current situation, it seems more appropriate for an episode of Monty Python to imagine that the U.S. wants India and Pakistan to talk to each other. The perception in both countries is clearly that the U.S. is the puppeteer of a doomed future. All this can of course be reduced to the lens of the Afghanistan problem.

“The fact of the matter is that the Afghanistan problem cannot be solved without the U.S., India and Pakistan abandoning their neo-conservative approach and adopting realism,” writes Ayesha Siddiqa, a strategic and political analyst in the Pakistani daily DAWN, “which is not about the use of force all the time, but that involves measured movement.”

By now it should be clear to India and especially to Pakistan that the U.S. is no peace broker, and that any real positive change here will mean a change of positions, ideologies and beliefs in both countries. If there is a solution it must be bilateral and exclusive of the U.S. But for the problem country in this bunch — a client state with a reeling economy, terror on the rise, political instability and a military that emerges unhurt by all the challenges lacking the political will for positive engagement, it seems like an awfully utopian dream.

For the moment it’s all quid-pro-quo, a battle of egos, strategies and histories all colliding into each other. Nothing in the language of the debate over Pakistan’s access to nuclear technology or the Afghanistan problem shows that the South Asia equation or the U.S. participation in that equation will change anytime soon. The stakes perceived by each distrusting country are far too high.

Sonya Fatah covers religion and Indo-Pak affairs for GlobalPost from New Delhi.