Uncle Sam’s Sly Sally

After effusively proclaiming US-Indian relations to be best they have been in years, US Secretary of State Colin Powell offered Pakistan membership in the exclusive club of Major Non-Nato Allies (MNNA). Though Powell had met with India’s foreign minister mere days earlier, the Indian government learned about the agreement from the media. Washington claims that it had not wanted to announce its plans before they were definite, but many in India nevertheless view the move as a stab in the back. Many worry that the new military alliance will undermine India and Pakistan's tenuous relationship, possibly encouraging Pakistan to take a stronger stance on the dispute in Kashmir. However, India is unlikely to express much anger to this unexpected move. The announcement, occurring right before India’s general election, effectively prevented India’s current administration from issuing a strong reaction, tantamount to admitting failure on its foreign policy. –YaleGlobal

Uncle Sam's Sly Sally

V. Sudarshan
Monday, April 5, 2004

The irony inherent in foreign minister Yashwant Sinha's statement was to reveal itself a good 48 hours later. On March 16, though, as Sinha addressed a joint press conference with US Secretary of State Colin Powell, he was upbeat about New Delhi's relations with Washington. "As you are aware," he declaimed with an air of prim confidence, "I have said this and Secretary Powell had said this on occasions in the past, that the India-US relationship today is perhaps the best ever. And we are very happy that it is this way." Powell responded effusively, "I certainly agree with you that the United States and India are enjoying perhaps the best relationship that has existed between our two great democracies in many, many years—if not in history. And I am pleased that the dialogue is so open and so candid on all the outstanding issues in all aspects of our agenda."

A piquant sense of contradiction in this burst upon India's face two days later. In Islamabad, amidst sighs of exclamation, Powell announced Washington's decision to usher Pakistan into the exclusive club of Major Non-nato Allies (MNNA) "for the purposes of our future military-to-military relations". In one stroke, Pakistan was put on par with Israel, Japan, South Korea, Argentina, Bahrain, the Philippines, Jordan, Kuwait, Australia and Egypt.

The irony was telling because Indian officials got to know about Pakistan's MNNA status from the media. The news sank into South Block like a knife stab in the back. Powell had drawn blood. It was particularly galling because New Delhi, two days back, had pointedly asked Powell: was the US planning anything major with Pakistan? Such a step, New Delhi had argued, could discomfit the Vajpayee government ahead of the general election.

Impartial international observers would say Powell timed his move exceptionally well: the general election was bound to constrain the NDA government from issuing a strong reaction—for it would have been tantamount to admitting failure of its foreign policy, an area where Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee can justifiably claim to have notched significant success.

Indian officials were shocked at what they thought was Washington's betrayal. Just three months back, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice had rung up Indian counterpart Brajesh Mishra during the saarc meet in Islamabad, seeking to encourage India to endorse a joint statement with Pakistan. Earlier, the US had delayed announcement of the Strategic Partnership, arguing it could irk Pakistan and put a spanner in the saarc wheel. This is why many think the US is back to its old tricks: with people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan already under way, Washington perhaps calculated that Islamabad could be rallied to crack down on Al Qaeda through MNNA without angering New Delhi.

It took New Delhi 48 hours to express disappointment over Powell's method of diplomacy, before adding, almost as an afterthought, "We are studying the details of this decision, which has significant implications for India-US relations."

Not that MNNA is an appellation India covets. Although it allows Pakistan greater access to US military hardware at throwaway prices, it does not automatically guarantee top-of-the-line armaments.

But the cruellest cut came during Washington's attempt to rationalise its decision. First, Powell was quoted saying that granting Pakistan MNNA status "was something we have been working on for months and months and months and months". In a subsequent phone conversation with Sinha, Powell claimed the decision hadn't been taken at the time he was in New Delhi. Again, deputy spokesman of the state department Adam Ereli brusquely answered those who wondered whether New Delhi had been informed about the MNNA decision saying it wasn't something "they cared to advertise beforehand".

Worse, in a carefully crafted release for the press, state department spokesman Richard Boucher omitted mentioning dialogue on missile defence as part of the US-India Strategic Partnership, although he laboriously mentioned enhanced joint efforts in the areas of civil space, civil nuclear and hi-tech cooperation, the other growth areas in US-India strategic cooperation. In the new season of suspicion, officials here understandably wonder whether references to "expanded dialogue on missile defence"—the only military element of the Indo-US strategic cooperation—was left out in deference to Pakistani sensitivities.

All this has triggered speculation on where India's relations with the US are headed. Despite the unprecedented efforts at giving new meaning and content to India's relations with the sole superpower, many feel America is tilting decisively, even recklessly, towards Pakistan. Powell, they add, has undermined the trust the two countries shared. Says a senior source, "From time to time they still continue to raise concerns on our activities in Afghanistan even while giving Musharraf a clean chit. India is solidly behind the Karzai government, and had granted close to $300 million to Afghanistan." The last time India was issued a demarche by Washington was in November 2002 when, at Pakistan's prompting, it voiced concern over New Delhi opening consulates in Jalalabad and Kandahar. It's obscene, say sources, the way US has exonerated Islamabad on Al Qaeda, cross-border terrorism and nuclear proliferation.

The most direct fallout of the MNNA decision is that it could undermine any notion that Washington may entertain about its ability to play a facilitating role between India and Pakistan. Diplomats say the US has lost all claims to this role in the nascent India-Pakistan peace process. "Washington will now be seen to be speaking exclusively from the perspective of Islamabad," declares a source.

What is telling, diplomats say, is the haste with which the US has upgraded its ties with Islamabad even before it has been proved unequivocally that Musharraf has delivered on his promise of ending cross-border terrorism. This will be tested in the summer months when the snow melts and conditions become suitable for infiltration. "If things were to sour between India and Pakistan, it is doubtful whether they will put any pressure on Musharraf. They are drawing a very fine line between putting pressure and abject surrender to Musharraf," says a senior official.

Traditionally, whenever US has explicitly backed Pakistan, the tendency in Islamabad has been to harden its stance against India, especially on the Kashmir issue. This happened when Pakistan became a member of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) in 1954. Then India and Pakistan were talking, among other things, demilitarisation measures in Kashmir. But Pakistan, once it joined these two military alliances, toughened its stance on Kashmir, as did India saying that there was no need to talk about demilitarisation as Islamabad was now part of a formal military alliance. It wrecked the process. Again, when the US and Pakistan propped up the mujahideen in Afghanistan, Islamabad fomented terrorism in Punjab. America's latest move could yet again ruin a tenuous friendship India-Pakistan have built on cricket.

©Outlook Publishing (India) Private Limited 2003.