VIVEK Y. KELKAR, MUMBAI
Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, India, Iran, Russia, and the Taliban form the strands of a tangled geopolitical knot. Untangling these twisted ropes is the key to peace in Asia. But there’s no sword.
As the story goes, when Alexander the Great marched his army into the Phrygian capital of Gordium, he encountered an ancient wagon, its yoke tied with “several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened.” An oracle had prophesied that any man who could unravel these elaborate knots was destined to rule over all of Asia.
Alexander, seized with the desire to untie the Gordian knot, wrestled with the gnarled ropes but made no progress. At last, he proclaimed, “It makes no difference how it’s untied,” drew his sword, and sliced the knot in half. As everyone knows, he went on to conquer all of Asia.
South Asia is much like that knot, and the US position is quite like Alexander’s—but alas, there is no sword.
To begin untangling US options in South Asia, consider the five primary strands of this impossible knot: Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, India, and the Taliban. Iran and Russia, too, are subtly woven through the whole tangle.
It is a mess.
The US may believe its grand strategy has outgrown the limited prism of the War on Terror. Americans may view the logic of the Cold War as outdated. They may argue that geopolitics are now defined by great power rivalry, and in particular by China’s relationship with the world and its growing ability to challenge American hegemony. But a change in American strategic doctrine doesn’t change South Asia. There, the ghosts of the past continue to haunt the present.
THE ZERO-SUM GAME
Despite viewing Nehru as a Soviet sympathizer, Kennedy and Eisenhower Administrations maintained correct relations with India. Good personal chemistry between Johnson and Indira Gandhi helped her to secure food and development aid from the US. But the Sino-Soviet split, which led to Sino-American rapprochement and Nixon’s visit to China, along with the wars between India and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, transformed the trilateral relationship among the US, India, and Pakistan. The US could not draw closer to one without harming its relationship with the other.
Kissinger’s secret trip to China underscored the low priority the Administration assigned to India. New Delhi concluded it could not rely on Washington for help in a crisis with Beijing or Islamabad.
Pakistan became key to US strategy. China had begun cultivating a relationship with Pakistan in the early 1960s, and Zhou Enlai had a good relationship with Pakistan’s foreign minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Later, through his strong diplomatic contacts with China, Pakistan’s President Yahya Khan would facilitate Nixon’s trip to China. In the light of India’s wars with China in 1962 and 1965, India could hardly serve as an interlocutor. Thus, Nixon tilted toward Pakistan.
Nixon and Indira Gandhi loathed each other, too. Recently declassified records from the Oval Office show a Nixon consumed by personal revulsion with Indian women: “I don’t know how they reproduce,” he muttered. Kissinger called Indians /“bastards,” and Indira Gandhi “a witch and a bitch.”
Kissinger’s secret trip to China underscored the low priority the Administration assigned to India. New Delhi concluded it could not rely on Washington for help in a crisis with Beijing or Islamabad. Needing a great power ally for arms and for support at the UN Security Council, and persuaded Nixon and Kissinger were incapable of considering their perspective, India turned to the Soviet Union, with which it signed a defense pact in 1971. India’s relationship with the US thus became truly frosty, particularly when India and Pakistan went to war.
Having put all its eggs in the Pakistan basket, Nixon worried Yahya would lose power if Pakistan lost the war—which is just what happened, although Bhutto filled the breach for the Americans. Nixon viewed Indira Gandhi’s role in the war as a personal betrayal, regardless of India’s interests or perspective.
From then on, the India-Pakistan-US relationship approximated a zero-sum game. The US firmly sided with Pakistan, and the Soviets firmly sided with India. In late December of 1971, when the US fleet sailed into the Bay of Bengal, the Soviets were ready to take their fleet out of Vladivostok to make good their pact with India. It was Brezhnev who famously called on Indira Gandhi to end the Indo-Pakistan war, even as India’s generals believed they could take Lahore. In his memoirs, Kissinger describes this incident as the closest the US and the Soviets had ever come to war, except during the Cuban crisis.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan became indispensable to the US. Indira and Rajiv Gandhi built some rapport with Carter and Reagan, but by then, circumstances had pushed the US firmly into Pakistan’s camp.
The US-Pakistan relationship reached its apogee between the Nixon and Reagan eras, a marriage of convenience aimed at limiting the Soviet Union’s influence. Americans sympathetic to Pakistan still invoke this period of cooperation, rightly pointing out that the United States cannot ignore a country in such a strategic location, not least because it has a large army and nuclear weapons.
Not that long ago, Biden was among the sympathetic. He was the original author of the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act, informally known as the Kerry-Lugar Act, an initiative was meant to stabilize Pakistan and strengthen its democracy. It tripled nonmilitary assistance to Pakistan over a period of five years. The bill’s sponsors hoped that in exchange, Islamabad would clamp down on the Haqqani Network and the Pakistani Taliban. But it didn’t. The assistance was not renewed.
China’s economy and Pakistan’s are inextricably entwined, in complex ways, and not just by the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with all its attendant debt-loading. Pakistan’s US$ 285 billion economy is deeply in hock.
At his recent confirmation hearing, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken reminded Congress of the inherent problem of the US-Pakistan relationship. “We want to retain some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism, which is what brought us there in the first place,” he said, speaking of Afghanistan, but in doing so reminding Congress that Pakistan that facilitated the Taliban’s rise, and its intelligence services covertly supported al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden.
Further complicating matters is Pakistan’s relationship with the Gulf potentates. Two years ago, during the period of Trump-MbS bonhomie, it seemed as if Saudi Arabia and the UAE might be poised to wean themselves off the Pakistani teat. When the Financial Action Task Force, a money-laundering watchdog, put Pakistan on its terror-financing watch list, the Saudis declined to lend their diplomatic muscle to Islamabad. But Biden, having exposed the crown prince’s role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, has put the US relationship with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince under a cloud. If it falls apart, the United States could lose its already limited ability to keep Pakistan in line by pressuring the Saudis.
Pakistan’s democracy remains fragile. The army remains its dominant institution, and President Imran Khan relies upon it. If all of this wasn’t enough, the Pakistan-China axis is now well-developed.
THE CHINA SYNDROME
Pakistan is a crucial link in the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. China’s trade and military facilities at the Pakistani port of Gwadar give it access to the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, and beyond. For Beijing, the road to the Middle East is through Pakistan. Pakistan is also China’s bridge to the Central Asian republics with which Pakistan has historic and religious ties.
China’s economy and Pakistan’s are inextricably entwined, in complex ways, and not just by the construction of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor with all its attendant debt-loading. Pakistan’s US$ 285 billion economy is deeply in hock. In the past five years, China has invested US$ $56 billion in Pakistan as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Recently, Saudi Arabia called in a US$ 3 billion loan, raising the specter of a balance-of-payments crisis: Pakistan turned to China for a bailout.
For China, Pakistan’s rivalry with India is a godsend. It keeps India, with which it shares its largest land border, distracted on two fronts.
The emerging Cold War between China and the US means the US will be wary of any action that could irrevocably push Pakistan into China’s arms. But according to Richard Olson, the former US ambassador to Pakistan and former special envoy to Afghanistan, the days of “post-9/11 multi-billion-dollar blandishments” are over. Washington believes the money was wasted. The close relationship is “probably gone for good,” he writes, because it’s hard to imagine how an Islamabad that’s increasingly aligned with Beijing could remain close to Washington.
“A productive relationship may be possible,” he continues, “if it is ‘rightsized’ and focused on genuinely overlapping interests, especially economic and cultural ones.” It’s hard to visualize these overlapping economic and cultural interests, given Pakistan’s links to Islamic extremism and its status as an economic basket case. Trade between the US and Pakistan 2019 amounted to less than USD $7 billion last year. The United States doesn’t get out of bed for less than a trillion.
Olson’s views notwithstanding, history may prevent the United States’ decoupling from Pakistan, even momentarily. That, and Pakistan’s critical position on the globe—right next to the old graveyard of empires, Afghanistan.
THE AFGHAN GRAVEYARD
Last week, the US State Department said it would restart talks with the Taliban but refused to commit to drawing down troops before the May deadline negotiated by the Trump administration.
A few days before, Russia began laying down its own calling cards in the region. Russia’s presidential special envoy for Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, indicated that Moscow wished to create a mechanism for peace talks involving the US, China, Iran, and Pakistan. India did not figure in Kabulov’s hints.
Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, added that while his country would continue to talk to key players—he included India and the Central Asian countries on this list—diplomatic efforts in the region would hinge chiefly on the US, China, Iran and Pakistan. Just a few weeks before, General Joseph F. Dunford, the former chairman of the US Joints Chiefs of Staff, warned Congress of the risk of civil war in Afghanistan should US troops withdraw abruptly.
Pakistan’s homegrown terror networks cause problems for its own citizens, too, so the country still needs to cooperate with the US and other stakeholders to keep them under control. China, with its vulnerabilities in Xinjiang, is poorly placed to help Pakistan with this issue.
The Biden administration has hinted it may not stick to the May 2021 deadline for withdrawal because the Taliban hasn’t kept its side of the bargain. The US had extracted promises that the Taliban would end its terrorist activities, enact a ceasefire among its warring factions, and negotiate terms of peace and co-existence with the Kabul government. These promises remain unfulfilled.
But on Wednesday, Afghanistan’s Tolo News Agency reported that Blinken, writing to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, had called for a meeting among Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India to discuss a unified approach to the peace process. Blinken called for a “new, inclusive government,” meaning he acknowledges the Taliban will inevitably play a role in it, despite its fanaticism.
From India’s point of view, being included in the talks would be welcome news. India has not, so far, felt its interests adequately represented. It would mean that at last, America recognizes India’s importance in Asia.
The links between Pakistan’s notorious Inter-Services Intelligence agency and violent groups, including the Taliban, that covertly and overtly spread fanaticism across the region have been extensively documented. But Pakistan’s homegrown terror networks cause problems for its own citizens, too, so the country still needs to cooperate with the US and other stakeholders to keep them under control. China, with its vulnerabilities in Xinjiang, is poorly placed to help Pakistan with this issue. Dismantling the terror network is key to the peace effort in Afghanistan, and indeed the wider region.
ADDING INDIA TO THE CURRY
The US has no influence over the most difficult issue in South Asia—Kashmir. But in recent decades, US influence has, at least, prevented full-scale war between India and Pakistan.
India remains a crucial strategic partner for the US in Asia. With its nearly US$ 3 trillion economy and its membership of the G20, India now has global heft. In 2016, the US designated India a Major Defense Partner: This status isn’t as formal and concrete as the next rung up, a Major Non-Nato Ally, but it is a clear path toward greater openness in sharing military technology. In 2016, the US signed a basic defense pact with India, followed by two more defense agreements. These give India real-time access to American geospatial intelligence, allow the militaries of both countries to resupply from each other’s bases, and allow the US to provide India with encrypted communications equipment and systems so that Indian and US military commanders can communicate through secure networks.
The terminology the US now uses for the region is also telling. It now speaks of an “Indo-Pacific” strategy involving a “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue,” or Quad, with India, Japan, and Australia. This is no limited security agreement. Clearly, the US is trying to create a counterweight to China’s new regional trade pacts. Biden stressed the importance of the Quad in a recent call Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Anthony Blinken said in his confirmation hearing that India’s newfound friendship with the US is a “bipartisan success story.” Lloyd Austin, Biden’s Secretary of Defense, assured Congress that the US would continue to “operationalize India’s Major Defense Partner status”.
Austin is scheduled to meet his Indian counterpart, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, and India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar in early April. Ostensibly, his visit may be to boost the Quad. But it’s critical for Austin to finalize weapon systems sales to India—not just the fighter jets that India desperately needs, but unmanned aerial systems, mid-air refuellers, and other equipment.
The US has initiated a virtual conference, slated soon after this visit, among Biden, Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, to give the Quad its final shape. Significantly, the Biden Administration’s recently released Interim National Security Strategic Guidance document calls for deepening America’s partnership with India.
But any newfound friendship between the US and India needs to be assessed in the context of the complex and volatile strands that entwine South Asia and, indeed, Asia itself. America has a blessed and unique capacity for amnesia. But Asia does not. There can be no return to the simple, zero-sum game of the 1970s. The ghosts of past wars, hot and cold, will continue to haunt the region. There is neither an elegant solution nor a sword that can untie these complex knots.
Vivek Y. Kelkar is co-founder and editor of The Cosmopolitan Globalist.