Foreign policy is not made in a day, much less on inauguration day. The smiles that broke out in Delhi when President Barack Obama cautioned Pakistan that non-military aid would be cut if it did not curb domestic terrorism were premature. In any case, it is military aid rather than civilian aid to Islamabad which should be of more concern to Delhi, but the government in Delhi has become so dependent on the United States that it gets pleased with very little. An inaugural speech can only be peppered with markers that will slowly be fleshed into policy. But amateurs in Delhi have rushed to judgment where professionals fear to tread.
There was an air of simulation in the bluster with which Pakistan reacted. The boys of Islamabad know a charade when they see it; they are experts in the game themselves, after all. They don’t need spectacles to read between the lines of Obama’s South Asia policy.
Obama, still brimming with the audacity of hope, has promised peace all over the world and war in one corner: Afghanistan. Pakistan is not very competent in the disbursement of peace. Its expertise lies in the dissemination of war, by declaration or proxy, on enemy territory or the land of friends. And now of course it is fighting more than one war on its own soil. Pakistan knows that America cannot fight in Afghanistan without force, intelligence and logistical support provided by Pakistan. As long as this material situation does not change, America needs Pakistan more than Pakistan needs America. Pakistan has decided to not merely extract a financial price for this support, but also a political price.
London and Washington already know what the price is, and are getting ready to pay it in some abbreviated form. Pakistan has begun with a tremendous advantage over India in the Washington diplomatic game. It engaged with the Obama campaign and the transition team, while Indian diplomats, taking their cue from Dr Manmohan Singh’s near-obsessive love for George Bush, concentrated totally on Bush and the Republicans. This has been a great failure of foreign policy for which we have already begun to suffer. Pakistan has persuaded key advisers of Obama that it cannot fight the Taliban with its full resources as long as it has to simultaneously defend its border with India. The Indian threat can only be lowered with a resolution of the Kashmir issue. Therefore, it is time America and Britain persuaded India to discuss and settle Kashmir.
In an extraordinary manoeuvre, Pakistan turned around the Mumbai terror attack, organised on its soil. From predator, it refashioned itself into a victim. It used the war rhetoric from the Indian government to warn the West that it would pull out of the war against the Taliban. Delhi’s hot air proved doubly insipid. It did not frighten Pakistan one bit, but it scared the wits out of Washington and London, who rushed to Delhi and leaned on it. Delhi succumbed. India has lost twice over through Mumbai. It has become a laughing stock at security conferences. And it has allowed what could have been a diplomatic coup against Pakistan to become a diplomatic coup against India. This is incompetent governance, not just abysmal security.
The British foreign secretary David Miliband was audacious enough to contradict India’s Prime Minister on Indian soil, by saying that the terrorist attack was not sponsored by the Pakistan government, and that India had better do something about the core cause, Kashmir. Instead of snubbing him, Rahul Gandhi, Congress’ proxy Prime Minister, took Miliband for some private tourism of poverty. British correspondents in Delhi have applauded Miliband for telling it like it is, throwing in a sentence that this is going to be Obama’s line as well.
Hillary Clinton, the incoming Secretary of State, has already enunciated the Obama doctrine at her confirmation hearings in the Senate. The ‘hard power’ of Bush will be replaced by ‘smart power’. This has been defined as the application of a “full range of tools…diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal and cultural” in the pursuit of American interests. Pentagon awe will be accompanied by nudge and arm-twist. By the time the twisting is over, Delhi might need a heavy bandage on the elbow.
Obama’s policy towards South Asia will be controlled by the compulsions of a war he wants to win in a hurry, before fatigue and a rising death toll turn it into another Iraq, or, worse, Vietnam. The battlefield will not be Afghanistan alone. American forces might soon have to fight in the western half of Pakistan, from Karachi to Swat, which is already being christened Talibanistan (the eastern half still remains Pakistan). Americans have reached that curious state of mind in which they want to win wars without losing soldiers. Their military research is concentrating on the robotisation of the armed forces where even the infantry could become mechanical instead of human. But that is a long way ahead. The war for Afghanistan will be won or lost long before that.
Muslims across the world are taking comfort in the semantics of Obama’s initial remarks. After being misbespoken to, and misunderstandimated for eight years, it must be a relief to hear correct grammar. Some of them have taken partial ownership of his presidency because he used his middle name, Hussein, while taking the oath. But the issue is not what Obama says. It is what he does.
Will he be able to get a resolution to Palestine except on harsh Israeli terms? Even if we ignore his campaign rhetoric — he could hardly afford to alienate the most powerful lobby in the United States — there are powerful interests protecting the expansionist reach of Israel. At all events, it will not be easy. Neither will be a victory in Afghanistan. As pressure mounts on him, he will be tempted to mount pressure on India through Kashmir.
It is going to be a complicated game, which might drift endlessly to a point where every side looks like a loser. Hope needs to be handled very carefully if it wants to remain audacious.