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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.

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.