The Pakistan-US strategic dialogue held in Washington DC on 24-25 March has generated a mix of hope and despair in India. There is some hope in US bonafides vis-a-vis India, as the US was firm in advising Pakistan to deal with the water issue with India according to the procedure laid down in the Indus waters treaty, refused to change its stand on the Kashmir issue and just listened to Pakistan's case on its having a nuclear deal similar to the one India has with the US.
But there is despair on the possibility of the Pakistan Army coming up with more tricks to avoid taking action against the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), considered Pakistan’s asset in its strategic arsenal against India. Having persuaded the Pakistan Army to initiate action against three of the five jehadi organisations listed by President Obama as entities to be disrupted, dismantled and defeated, the US administration is generous with its praise of the Pakistani Army. The three are the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. The Pakistan Army has given no indication of its intention to act against LeT or the Haqqani network. It is particularly puzzling to the Indians that in the immediate wake of David Headley's plea bargain establishing the continuing operations of the LeT in India and the US, and its close links with ex-army officers and the ongoing attempts at terrorism on the US mainland by jehadis associated with LeT, the American side has chosen to adopt a muted stand on the issue of LeT.
There is a widespread view in India that just as President Pervez Musharraf joined the US in October 2001 in Operation Enduring Freedom to save the Taliban and al Qaeda from destruction, the present alignment of Pakistani Army policy with US policy may be designed to save and preserve the LeT and the Haqqani network for future terrorist use. Already, a representative of extremist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an ally of Haqqani, has contacted Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai. Hekmatyar is a long time favourite of the Pakistan Army and the bete noire of the US. This development raises fears that the Pakistan Army is planning to install its henchmen in Kabul when the Americans start drawing down their forces in Afghanistan in 2011.
The flip-flop of the Americans in respect of allowing Indian authorities access to David Headley is yet another issue which makes many Indians wonder whether we are back in the days of the Bush-Musharraf era, when the US looked away as General Musharraf gave a safe haven to the al Qaeda and Taliban, nurtured the LeT and allowed all of them to strengthen themselves. President Obama, in his speech on 27 March, referred to the mixed record of those years and promised to hold the Pakistanis accountable. However, the US authorities, now looking away from lack of action against the LeT, would appear to indicate that the Pakistani Army may find it easy to repeat their past tricks. This is the basis of Indian despair vis-a-vis the Americans.
The US-Pakistan joint statement released at the end of the dialogue said the two leaders, Hillary Clinton and Shah Mohammed Qureshi, reiterated that the core foundations of this partnership are shared democratic values, mutual trust and mutual respect. The irony of this assertion could not have been lost on those present, especially the Pakistanis. It has been well publicised in the Pakistani media that General Kayani summoned all the concerned Pakistani secretaries to the government to the Army General Headquarters in Rawalpindi to finalise the brief for the Washington conference. The Army Chief recently extended the tenures of the ISI chief Shuja Pasha, present in the conference, and a number of corps commanders exercising the powers Musharraf used to have in his combined role as Army Chief and President. Pakistan would appear to be back in the days of Benazir, when she provided a civilian façade to a government in which the Army wielded the real power. The Pakistani joke is that either a general sits on the chair of power or just stands behind it.
In the joint statement the United States re-affirmed its resolve to assist Pakistan to overcome socio-economic challenges by providing technical and economic assistance and to enable Pakistan to build its strengths by optimal utilisation of its considerable human and natural resources and entrepreneurial skills. The tenor of the statement indicated a long-term US commitment to Pakistan’s socio-economic development. In that event, in 2011 in the wake of the US draw-down of forces from Afghanistan, the US will be present in Pakistan with commitment to a long-term development programme and possibly a significant military assistance programme as well. In that sense the situation will be radically different from the one in 1994, when the untethered Pakistan army could walk in and establish Taliban rule in Kabul. One expects the US will simultaneously have an equally significant political and economic presence in Afghanistan in the withdrawal phase, with a diminishing military presence. In those circumstances, will the US permit Pakistan to reinstall Pakistan-pasand elements in dominant power in Kabul, as seemed to be envisaged in the Pakistani as well as many sections of the Indian establishment?
There is no disputing that the US has to have a strategy of developing a closer relationship with Pakistan, to deal with Pakistani state-sponsored terrorism. In spite of the 9/11 plot being hatched in Pakistan by a Pakistani and Pakistani al Qaeda, and LeT unsuccessfully (so far) targeting the US homeland for terroristic acts, the US has been extraordinarily patient in dealing with Pakistan, since Pakistani army-sponsored terrorism is shielded by its nuclear arsenal and its implicit threat of letting the weapons fall into the hands of terrorists. The US strategy appears to be like that of Delilah — sleeping with the enemy to disarm him. India cannot object to that. But since India is the primary victim of Pakistani terrorism, if India is not taken into confidence in regard to their broad strategy vis-a-vis Pakistan, in the absence of cent percent trust and communication India may be compelled to act, in case there is another major terrorist provocation in ways that may not be entirely in alignment with US strategy. US authorities should bear this in mind.