South Asia has a very important part to play in the US strategic design for Asia. India and Pakistan, the two eternal belligerents, have always been a diplomatic nightmare to handle together. In the mid-90s, the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a policy paper for the Clinton Administration suggesting a de-hyphenation of US policy towards India and Pakistan. Consequently, a major paradigm shift in the US approach to the South Asia/Indo-Pak subcontinent took place. This was a major development that unshackled US policy towards the region, giving it much more flexibility in dealing with India and Pakistan, independent of one another. As a part of the US strategic design for Asia, India and Pakistan now seem to be firmly emplaced in their allotted slots; India as a strategic partner to pursue US interests in the South-Central Asian Region (SCAR), Greater Middle East Region, (GMER), Indo-Pacific Region (IPR) and the Indian Ocean while Pakistan is to be essentially engaged in the regional/subregional contexts of the SCAR-GMER Complex. India is expected to play a major role at the regional and extra-regional levels vis a vis China. However, any increase in India’s military capacity, ostensibly to confront China, upends the strategic balance in South Asia/Indo-Pak subcontinent as well—much to Pakistan’s detriment. The US policy of de-hyphenating India and Pakistan does not seem to be delivering very well at this point in time. The attainment of US strategic objectives in South Asia still remains elusive. The evolving strategic environment in the region is forcing India and Pakistan to be clubbed together again. Two major issues continue to impede this US policy. One is Kashmir. India and Pakistan just do not have it in them to come to a reasonable, sensible, peaceful solution to this intractable imbroglio on their own. Both have adopted maximalist positions and will not compromise or cede ground. Bilateralism has and is likely to fail perpetually. Both are very significant military and nuclear powers, and if the Kashmir issue is mishandled, could very easily blow themselves and a major part of the international community out of this world. A conflagration between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan will set back the achievement of US strategic objectives in the region massively. It must consider getting proactively involved in getting the requisite UNSC Resolutions implemented. The other is China. The US wants India to focus its attention entirely on circumscribing the rise of its nemesis. However, the Indian military is primarily and foremost Pakistan-centric. Anywhere up to eighty percent or more is either deployed or poised against it. It can only be moved away toward China through a massive paradigm shift in its strategic orientation, force structures and ratios, capabilities and capacities, etc. The costs will be prohibitive in political, military and economic terms which the Indian Government and military might be unwilling or unable to bear. Furthermore, the strategic environment in the larger Kashmir region has now acquired far more serious dimensions. Where India is a strategic partner of the US, Pakistan is strategically aligned with China. India is now faced with a three-front war—China, Pakistan and the inner front of the disturbed, restless IIOJ&KR! India cannot overwhelm nuclear Pakistan alone, much less Pakistan and China combined. It is a patently lose-lose situation for India. The odds for India (and by implication the attainment of US objectives) can only improve if Pakistan is somehow neutralized and taken out of the strategic equation. Currently, Pakistan finds itself in very dire economic straits. It is now tottering on the brink of a paralyzing political implosion and an economic meltdown as terrorism raises its macabre head again. To make matters worse the Armed Forces, the perceived centre of gravity of the nation, stand discredited and ostracized. Furthermore, a coterie of self-seeking, malleable political charlatans have been maneuvered into power. Media campaigns, essentially defeatist in nature, are suggesting fresh lessons in realpolitik for Pakistan; bin the Kashmir issue and submit to the wiles of Hindutva-charged India. Has this current politico-economic conundrum come about merely due to incompetent political and economic management or is it a grand strategic manoeuvre undertaken to achieve specific objectives at the regional and global levels? Either way, it has placed Pakistan in an extremely weak and vulnerable position. Pakistan’s vulnerabilities make it susceptible to exploitation by ruthless global powers. They may make an economic bailout for Pakistan contingent upon it meeting their combined strategic interests in the region. One, they could coerce Pakistan to make peace with India (on their terms); put the Kashmir issue on the back burner for a couple of decades and develop “meaningful” trade and economic relations with it. Two, most crucially, they could demand the neutralization of Pakistan’s nuclear program in totality. (Securing Pakistan’s Nukes, by this scribe, The Nation, 05 and 08 November 2022). Three, they could force Pakistan to remain neutral in a possible Indo-China conflict, a la the 1962 Indo-China War. This will secure India’s northern and western borders and free up its military currently fixed by Pakistan’s Armed Forces, to take on China single-mindedly. Four, Pakistan could be required to delay, disrupt, destroy and eventually ditch the BRI-CPEC, ostensibly its future economic lifeline. This would deny the BRI and China a smooth ingress into the GMER and beyond as well. All this would transpire in Pakistan becoming subservient to Indian hegemony in the region. Any Government of Pakistan agreeing to any one or more of the above or similar conditions would face a violent, volatile reaction from the public and will not survive. It would be imprudent and patently inadvisable to push nuclear Pakistan into a strategic cul de sac with nary a viable option! A review of this 27-year-old dehyphenation policy is warranted. It must be made relevant to the evolving strategic environment in South Asia. Pakistan cannot be disregarded in regional affairs. The US needs to get directly involved and play a proactive role in the region. It must help resolve the Kashmir issue. That might position it better to achieve some of its strategic objectives, if not all, someday!
(Courtesy The Nation, Pakistan)