An uneasy alliance

India is one of the world's largest and most powerful democracies, but as Bush administration envoys arrive in South Asia hoping to prevent war, Indian officials wonder why Pakistan seems to be the premier U.S. ally.


Michelle Goldberg
June 6, 2002 3:07AM (UTC)

When Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage arrive in India this week, they'll have to contend with the hurt feelings and thwarted geopolitical aspirations of the world's largest democracy. Although India's hawkish Home Minister L.K. Advani made conciliatory statements on Monday, there will be no quick fix to make the country back away from its confrontation with Pakistan over Kashmir, partly because India is nursing 50 years of slights by the U.S., experts say.

India believes there should be a natural affinity between it and America, given that it is one of Asia's few stable democracies. But instead, the U.S. has frequently tilted toward Pakistan, first thanks to Cold War calculations and now because of the war on terror.

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That frustration, say some analysts, has been a factor in India's current escalation along the Pakistani border, and it will hamper America's ability to convince the country to stand down. "India feels slighted," says Aruna Michie, a political science professor at Kansas State University and trustee of the American Institute of Indian Studies. "India has always felt that it is a major power and that the U.S. has refused to recognize that and has made marriages of convenience here and there rather than building a long-term stable relationship. So I can't see what the U.S.'s leverage point is with India."

Strain between India and the U.S. began with America's Cold War hostility toward nonaligned nations, which, according to Tim Lomperis, professor of Asian studies and chairman of the political science department at St. Louis University, eventually drove India to sign a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. That same year, during Bangladesh's war for independence from Pakistan, American ships entered the Bay of Bengal, an action India perceived as a threat.

The Cold War tensions continued into the 1980s. In 1982, the U.S. teamed up with Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq -- like Pervez Musharraf, a military dictator -- to funnel aid to the mujahedin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Many Indians believe that, by strengthening links between Pakistan's military and Islamic fundamentalist fighters, this contributed to Pakistan's radicalization -- and thus to the cross-border terrorism that plagues India.

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By the late 1990s, India and the U.S. had started moving closer together, but then, in 1998, India conducted nuclear weapons tests, with Pakistan following three weeks later. America forcefully condemned the tests and imposed sanctions on both countries. After that, says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, "the nuclear proliferation issue absolutely dominated U.S. policy towards India."

Relations between the countries warmed up a little last year, as the Bush administration began to court India as a counterweight to China, which was emerging as Enemy No. 1 in the days before the "axis of evil." There were plans to drop sanctions against India; the hope there was that America would finally cut its ties with Pakistan, which has close ties to China. Even after 9/11, some in India hoped the U.S. would finally understand the terrorist threat they had been contending with. So many Indians found it particularly galling when America ignored India's offers of support and formed an alliance with Pakistan instead, even if government officials understood the geopolitical realities underlying U.S. actions.

Reflecting India's sense of isolation, a furious Nov. 17 editorial in the Indian English-language newspaper the Statesmen about Vajpayee's offers of support to America and subsequent trip to Washington was headlined "Ridiculed By US." "India is not a frontline state in so far as America's war in Afghanistan is concerned," it said. "What was the need for Atal Behari Vajpayee to rush to Washington, only to be humiliated by American leaders and the media?"

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That view was echoed in an editorial in this week's India Today -- a kind of Indian Newsweek -- which says that if India and Pakistan fail to back away from the brink of war, "it will be as much the fault of America as that of Pakistan."

"[S]oon after 9/11, American foreign policy in South Asia became so confused that the lines between good and evil began to blur," the article continues. "We found ourselves confronting the bizarre reality that in the eyes of the US State Department Musharraf was a hero and not, as we saw him, the chief patron of terrorism in Kashmir and Afghanistan. We knew, of course, that the US President did not even know who Musharraf was a year earlier but we had hoped that someone would brief him on Pakistan's active role in creating his enemy, the Taliban."

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In fact, some suggest that India's current escalation is intended in part to do what diplomacy couldn't -- to force the U.S. to lean hard on Pakistan, which it has failed to do until recently because it needs Musharraf's help in hunting al-Qaida. "India sees the opportunity to use American interest in the region to bring pressure to bear on Pakistan," says Ayesha Jalal, a history professor at Tufts University whose books include "Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective."

In part, that's just what Armitage and Rumsfeld are likely to do on their visit. Right now, America's primary objective is to coerce Pervez Musharraf into cracking down on the cross-border incursions into Kashmir that have India so enraged. This has mollified the Indians into making some appeasing statements. India's defense minister, George Fernandes, said last week that another terrorist attack like the May 14 assault at Kaluchak, which killed 32 people, including family members of Indian soldiers, would necessitate immediate action. Yesterday, Indian officials backed away from that position.

This is reason for optimism. Yet while the Indians relish American pressure on Pakistan, they might not be responsive to American pressure on them. And if the crisis is to be defused, Jalal says, "there will have to be a degree of pressure on both countries." Besides urging India to refrain from striking at Pakistan, she says, the United States will, as "the second phase of this game," eventually have to try and push India toward negotiations over Kashmir, despite India's vociferous objections to outside interference on the issue.

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America needs India to stand down because whatever promises diplomats are able to extract from Musharraf, some say that even if he wanted to, it is doubtful that he could single-handedly end the flow of terrorists across the line of control in Kashmir. "The Indians want to be sure that the [terrorist training camps in Pakistan] are done away with," says Lomperis. "The Indians are going to point out that we've destroyed all the al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan," and India will want to see similar results in Pakistan. "The problem is that I don't know whether Pervez Musharraf is politically capable of delivering on that," he says.

In trying to ease hostilities in the region, the Bush administration finds itself a victim of its own rhetoric. The so-called Bush doctrine, in which states harboring terrorists are to be treated as terrorists themselves, is being used by India to justify a strike against Pakistan. "The World Trade Towers got hit, and look at what the U.S. did," says Michie. So Indians find it hypocritical that given terrorist attacks in both Kashmir and Delhi, the U.S. would ask India not to retaliate. "There is a feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the U.S. feels totally justified in invading a country halfway around world, but when a country tries to protect itself from its neighbor, everybody yells and says stand down, use caution," Michie says.

Some in India have co-opted the language of the American right, accusing the administration of moral equivalency by treating India and Pakistan as equals, despite the fact that one is the worlds' largest democracy and the other is a military dictatorship and longtime sponsor of Islamic militancy. India was especially incensed when, in the wake of 9/11, America simultaneously dropped nuclear sanctions against it and Pakistan. As a report by Lee Feinstein, a senior advisor to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, says: "The equal treatment came as something of a shock for India, and reportedly lobbyists for India in Washington actually sought to block sanctions relief for Islamabad at a time when Washington wanted to consolidate its alliance with Pakistan, now a front-line state in the war against terrorism."

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So even if Indians understand the realpolitik behind America's alliance with Pakistan, it still rankles, especially in light of the Bush administration's black-and-white rhetoric. "Just after Sept. 11, there was a feeling that perhaps now America will understand India's experience with terrorism," says Deepa Ollapally, senior fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. "Then, when the U.S. embraced General Musharraf, India was alarmed. There were statements that we'll have to do things on our own. Now there is a sense that perhaps Indian patience is wearing thin, that the U.S. is not fully reliable."

Not surprisingly, experts disagree over whether India's outrage is justified. "India has a tendency towards being insulted, which they relish," says Paul Bracken, a professor at Yale who wrote the book "Fire in the East: The Rise of Asian Military Power and the Second Nuclear Age." When sanctions were dropped against both India and Pakistan, he says, "I think they were insulted about the simultaneity of the thing, but they got so much pleasure going on their moral high horse that it was almost worth it."

Adds Jalal: "Any practical Indian individual understands that America was forging this relationship with Pakistan for their immediate concerns, to flush out al-Qaida. Any realistic assessment would enable them to understand that this was something the U.S. had to do. They still hope that their relationship with the U.S. will be a special one."

Yet others say that India's anger makes sense. "I think the U.S. has been entirely too friendly towards Pakistan," says Carpenter. "The U.S. should have quietly conveyed to India that Washington regards its relationship with India over the long term as much more important than its relationship with Pakistan. I don't think we provided that kind of reassurance to India."

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This was a huge mistake, Carpenter says. "Our policies have conveyed the message that we regard the two countries as roughly equal in importance. It's almost a revitalization of the old U.S.-Pakistan alliance. India is an emerging great power in that part of the world. Pakistan is a middling power and will never be more than that. We ought to keep our priorities straight. If we damage our relationship with India in the name of this short-term war in Afghanistan, it will be like a chess player trading his queen for a very grimy and cracked pawn."

Still, the relationship may not be as precarious as the hyperbole in the Indian media suggests. After all, according to Navnita Behera, whose books on South Asia include "State, Identity and Violence: Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh," despite India's disappointment with the U.S. treatment of Pakistan, right now there is "an unprecedented level of consultation between the two countries, an unprecedented level of coordination." The cooperation is both military and economic -- the U.S. is India's largest trading partner, and the two countries have been conducting joint military exercises. "There's an awful lot of back and forth between the two countries in terms of scholarly communities and professional communities," Michie adds. "On a citizen-to-citizen basis, there are relatively strong ties."

"I'm not saying there is bonhomie between the U.S. and India -- there isn't," Behera says. "But it's a long, long way from what it was even five years ago."

Tony Cordesman, former assistant for national security on the staff of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a defense policy think tank, gruffly dismisses the whole notion that India's hurt feelings are a factor in Indo-American diplomacy. "These are grown-ups, not new-age college students or international relations college professors," he says. "You deal with considerable ruthlessness in the national interest. You don't keep looking towards the past."

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Yet Bracken says India's feeling of isolation is "very real" and should be taken seriously. "In a narrow way, India clearly wants to put pressure on the U.S. to put pressure on Musharraf and the radicals, but I believe there's something else. I believe India will not depend on the United States for her security. Personally, I'm of the view that there will be a war."

It may not come this time, he says, but "one or two or three crises from now," he believes it will happen. Armitage and Rumsfeld can squeeze Musharraf to try to make sure that those crises don't happen. If they fail, though, it might be impossible for them to convince Delhi not to take the Bush doctrine seriously.


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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