America Should Focus on India, not Pakistan

By all rights, the United States and India should be bound together by the shared tragedies of 9/11 and last year's terrorist attacks in Mumbai. India's size, economic-growth trajectory, and rising power as a stable, secular democracy in a dangerous part of the world ought to make it a key U.S. partner. Instead, Washington's single-minded focus on India's much smaller unstable neighbor, Pakistan, in carrying out the war on terror has increasingly strained its relations with New Delhi. To India's dismay, the U.S. has looked the other way while much of the $10.5 billion in military hardware and cash subsidies provided to the Pakistan Army for use against the Taliban has been diverted to building up arms capabilities targeted at India. Equally disturbing is that Washington has given only perfunctory support to India in pushing Pakistan to prosecute the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks.

The principal argument advanced to justify this focus is that the U.S. needs the cooperation of Pakistani generals to counter Al -Qaeda and the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan. But, far from helping, Islamabad is giving covert aid to the Taliban. It also has yet to provide the intelligence needed to root out Al Qaeda—a point driven home in October when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, referring to Al Qaeda, told an audience in Pakistan that it was "hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn't get them if they really wanted to."

To complicate matters further, many Pakistani leaders now argue that their country needs a strong Taliban in Afghanistan to offset the rising Indian influence there. The price for cutting its ties with the Taliban, Islamabad says, is a "grand bargain" in which India lowers its profile in Kabul and settles the Kashmir issue. This position is of a piece with the longstanding desire in Islamabad to make Afghanistan a satellite state that will provide "defense in depth" against New Delhi. In an interview with me in 1988, Pakistani President Mohammad Zia ul-Haq declared that "we have earned the right as a frontline state against the Russians to have a friendly regime in Kabul, a regime to our liking." Two decades later, a Pakistani general told the visiting U.S. Director of Intelligence Mike McConnell that "we must support the Taliban so that there is a government friendly to Pakistan in Kabul. Otherwise, India will reign." More recently, the spokesman for the Pakistan armed forces criticized the "overinvolvement of Indians in Afghanistan," specifically warning against any Indian aid in training the Afghan Army.

Most U.S. officials have ignored Pakistan's attack on the Indian presence in Kabul. But Gen. Stanley McChrystal echoed the Pakistani refrain in his assessment of the prospects in Afghanistan, stating that "increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India." This was a bombshell in New Delhi, and the Obama administration should make clear that it is not opposed to more Indian influence in Kabul. The U.S. goal should be a sovereign Afghanistan, not the creation of an anti-Indian Pakistani satellite state. To this end, the U.S. and NATO should encourage India and other regional powers to play a greater role in shaping Afghanistan's future and in setting the terms for a gradual U.S.-NATO withdrawal. So far, Indian assistance to Kabul has consisted of just $1.2 billion in economic aid and police training, but it could offer a valuable addition to the currently ineffectual U.S.-NATO effort to train the Afghan Army.

As President Obama has observed, the Kashmir issue "is obviously a tar pit, diplomatically." That is because it is not a territorial issue. In Indian eyes, the retention of a Muslim-majority Kashmir is necessary to preserve India's character as a secular state in which 160 million Muslims coexist uneasily with a Hindu majority. By the same token, Pakistan gives Kashmir top priority to vindicate its creation as an Islamic state.

To be sure, significant progress was made during former president Pervez Musharraf's regime in exploring the terms for a thaw in Kashmir. But no proposal for a "grand bargain" would have any chance of success unless Islamabad prosecutes the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks and destroys the Islamist paramilitary forces that threaten India and Pakistan. This is extremely unlikely, given the grip of Islamist sympathizers on the Pakistan Army. So while the U.S. should continue to give large-scale development aid to Pakistan, the focus of its attention in South Asia should shift to India—one of the few bright spots on the U.S. global horizon.