India a ‘natural’ partner for US, but so are Pakistan & China

India and the US are natural partners, but not natural allies. That is the lesson that flows from the ups and downs of President Obama’s visit, which started on a disappointing note in Mumbai with his refusal to name Pakistan as a perpetrator of 26/11, but ended on a high note when he backed India for a UN Security Council seat.

However, the US also views Pakistan and China as partners. Indeed, it carries out annual strategic meetings with both countries, and the one with China is a gigantic affair. So, let nobody think that Obama has decided to back India against Pakistan and China. Rather, he looks forward to a win-win future for all four countries, overcoming existing disputes and recriminations. This attitude will exasperate Indians wanting him to declare Pakistan a terrorist state.

Obama has condemned some elements in Pakistan, but treats it with the full importance due to a frontline state in the US’ war against Islamic terror. He speaks out against all forms of Islamic terrorism, but focuses more on those that threaten the US than on those that threaten India. Yes, he supports India’s seat in the UNSC, to the discomfiture of Pakistan and China. But he is also quite capable of cutting a deal with the Afghan Taliban that will make India wince.

This drives home the lesson that India and the US are partners, not allies. Their interests overlap, but do not coincide. Obama made this clear in his Parliament speech: he thought India was far too soft on the crushing of democracy and civil rights in Iran and Myanmar . A dramatic example of differences came in 2003, when Indian Parliament passed an all-party resolution against the US invasion of Iraq.

Pakistan’s double dealing with the US is well known. It uses terrorism against India and seeks to re-establish Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Yet it provides the only route for US arms, materials and personnel into Afghanistan , so has a logistical stranglehold on the US. Besides, it has now become a victim of Islamic terrorism itself, diminishing, though by no means eliminating, its support for militant groups. Under Zardari, Pakistan has for the first time allowed massive US drone attacks against militants on its soil.

The rising tide of militant Islam in Pakistan cannot be combated by Pakistan-bashing by India or the US. It requires a stoic long-term effort to help liberal forces in the country to win against Islamist ones. Such a liberal victory cannot be imposed from outside: it has to come from within Pakistan. This cannot be achieved by selling US fighter planes to the country, but neither can be it achieved by denying it planes. The Pakistan Army is part of the problem, but will have to be part of the solution too.

Euphoria over Obama’s speech in Parliament must not cloak the grim fact that Islamic forces have recorded major gains in the past 12 months. The situation in India’s neighbourhood remains alarming. Things will probably get worse before they get better.

What do you think?