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Opinion: High stakes for the trio of tension โ€” US, India, Pakistan

Another installment of peace talks, but the real deal must be exclusive of the US.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, left, shares a laugh with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton after their meeting at the State Department in Washington, March 24, 2010. (Jim Young/Reuters)

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.”