“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”. William Shakespeare.
US policy towards the Indo-Pak subcontinent/South Asian region underwent a paradigm shift during the second Clinton Administration. This was essentially based on “A New US Policy towards India and Pakistan”, a January 1997 paper by the Council on Foreign Relations. It recommended “de-linking the two bilateral relationships and transcend the zero-sum dynamics…..” literally, to deal with them independent of one another. In later years the US nominated India as a strategic partner of the 21st century, propping it up as a bulwark against China in the process; Pakistan was to be engaged on a transactional basis, as usual.
The US had correctly identified and exploited India’s national weakness – its compulsive obsession with “greatness”; its unbridled, unrestrained ambition to be considered a “great nation”- be accepted in the genuine global powers club. Far from achieving greatness India has preferred to have it thrust upon itself instead. This suited the attainment of US’ interests in the region – and it moved in for the kill!
However, this change in US policy had inbuilt flaws and was at variance with ground realities. The bilateral relationships between two conjoined twins like India and Pakistan cannot be realistically delinked. They have intractable geopolitical issues like Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek et al to deal with. Their intense mutual animosity and belligerence should have been factored into the equation. India remains Pakistan centric; its military is therefore fixed and unable to break free to pursue common Indo-US interests in the region. Both militaries are sitting eyeball to eyeball with their fingers on nuclear triggers. What affects one has an inevitable impact on the other (for example, India’s accession to the NSG and the issue of eight F-16s for Pakistan!). So the links are pervasive and undeniable and therefore need a policy in sync with ground realities.
The US approach to the Indo-Pak sub continent is conspicuous for its dual standards. Where simmering nuclear flashpoints like Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, water et al are concerned the US washes its hands off all arbitration and vociferously promotes a “bilateral” approach to dispute resolution. However, where issues of a vital military and nuclear balance arise there surprisingly it consigns “bilateralism” to the dustbin and starts pursuing “realpolitik”– that is the promotion of India as a challenger to China’s growing power and influence and the compulsion to keep Pakistan from distracting it from this onerous task. This dichotomy in US approach works to Pakistan’s abiding disadvantage. Pakistan is thus forced to maintain that critical strategic balance so vital for its survival by relentlessly seeking and engaging other allies as well. Russian and Chinese ingresses into the region and Pakistani interest therein have seriously compounded the situation even further.
The intractability of the issue is further exacerbated by the US-led West and its allies constantly enhancing India’s military, nuclear and missile capabilities to match China’s. By default, the Indian Military thus acquires vital numerical and technological ascendancy over its Pakistani counterpart as well. A vicious circle thus ensues where India enhances its conventional and nuclear arsenals to outdo China’s while Pakistan strives to maintain that critical strategic balance with India. The US has patently failed to recognize the sensitivity and criticality of this issue as such and resultantly its policy and the nuclear and conventional arms races in the subcontinent continue to go haywire. Further, the larger the conventional differential between the Indian and Pakistani armed forces the more will be the latter’s reliance on its nuclear assets; and the lower, of necessity, will its nuclear thresholds go. Furthermore, if nuclear assets asymmetry also emerges (FMCT, NSG) then the strategic balance in the Indo-Pak subcontinent would be so critically off kilter that it may precipitate even deeper extra regional alliances/pacts, on ground presence of allies/external forces and in extreme circumstances even interventions!
These conflicting imperatives of US policy are further compounding an already over convoluted situation in the Indo-Pak subcontinent/South Asian region. In its indecent haste to prop India up to contain and manage the rise of China the US-led West is riding rough shod over a number of international covenants and regimes governing control, trade, and movement of advanced military arms and equipment, missile and nuclear technologies and systems, nuclear fuels, materials and dual-use technologies as well. The US-India Civil Nuclear Deal and the US eagerness to get India exemptions from and membership of the NSG have created real existentialist threats for Pakistan and have literally sounded the death knell for global and regional nuclear non-proliferation prospects. Resultantly, fissile material stockpiles in the region are continuously and rapidly soaring. This may have actually encouraged and facilitated India to establish a nuclear city with advanced nuclear and missile facilities at Challakere, Karnataka where ostensibly thermonuclear weapons, TNWs, enrichment of uranium and plutonium, fuel for nuclear submarines and advanced missile systems et al will be produced.
A veritable nuclear Frankenstein, in the shape of India, is thus in the making and the US-led West including Israel, Japan and Australia are totally, wholly and solely responsible for it.
The nuclear ante has predictably risen to alarming levels now and is inevitably warranting and generating compatible reciprocity within the region. No wonder Pakistan has already reacted and demonstrated its TNWs, MIRV, nuclear triad and second strike capabilities. More will predictably follow.
Any conventional or nuclear conflict between India and Pakistan, regardless of how Pakistan fares in it, will degrade India’s economy and military by such a massive extent that it will no longer remain viable or competitive with the Chinese military and thus of precious little use to the US any further. By default China will emerge stronger, more dominant and assertive in the region.
The Trump Administration must undo this foreign policy folly. A policy review is warranted. President Trump’s offer of mediation and help in conflict avoidance and resolution of all outstanding issues, in particular Kashmir, is the correct way forward. It must be pursued.
Else, this nuclear Frankenstein will one day outgrow its mandate, threaten the region and the world and worse, even turn onto its creator(s)!
By Imran Malik
The writer is a retired brigadier, a former defence advisor to Australia and New Zealand and secretary general of Pakistan Forum for Security and Development.