Friday, November 5, 2010

Watch your balance Mr. President, you are walking a tight rope.....

President Obama’s India visit is being given a little excessive significance as if he was the first ever US President to set his foot on Indian soil. The arrangements made for his reception and security are unprecedented. US taxpayers’ money is being made to flow like water, as they would say in Indian language. This trip may have economic significance for the US arms industry but there are various voices, some of them quite powerful, expecting the President to do as much as arbiter the settlement of Kashmir issue and play his role to denuclearize South Asia. The world should stop to expect too much from this visit.

This may be a tall order by every standard. India would never allow US President, or anyone for that matter, to utter the “K” word. The way its brutal security apparatus is trying to silence dissent and public uprising in Kashmir was reason enough for President Obama to call off his India trip. As for the nuclear issue of South Asia, no one except India and Pakistan themselves can resolve it. The moment India decides to stop brow-beating its non-pliant neighbor, the nuclear issue would go to rest automatically. For Pakistan, the N-bomb is a credible deterrent; it is a weapon against aggression by the bigger power, but it is not the weapon of first choice. Today, if the two countries decide to enter into economic partnership and trade, they would start having stakes in each other’s well being. And well being will follow soon because both of them are unable to afford the luxury of arms race.

An article which appeared in the latest edition of Foreign Policy Magazine suggests that during his upcoming India trip, Obama should quietly encourage Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to declare that his country will not increase its rate of fissile production and will put additional nonmilitary reactors under safeguards. The United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) could help monitor whether India sticks to such a pledge. As part of the 2005 deal to exempt India from nuclear trade standards, New Delhi pledged to support a verifiable, global fissile-material cutoff treaty, but Indian leaders have yet to do anything to that end.

On the other hand, Washington Post has reported that President Obama's decision to spend three days in India beginning Saturday, while bypassing Pakistan, has sparked anxiety among government officials here who warn that Obama risks upsetting the delicate balance of power between the nuclear-armed neighbors. Among the Pakistanis' chief concerns are the Obama administration's apparent unwillingness to get involved in the long-standing dispute over Kashmir; the blossoming U.S.-India civil nuclear partnership; and the symbolism of Obama starting his visit at the Taj Hotel in Mumbai, site of the 2008 siege that killed 173 people and that has been blamed on Pakistani militants.

Although the Obama administration recently proposed a new $2 billion aid package for the Pakistani army and last year signed off on a $7.5 billion civilian aid deal, government officials here said this week that the United States has yet to prove itself a reliable partner. "Unfortunately, on core issues, the U.S. continues to stick to its traditional anti-Pakistan policies - whether it is our nuclear energy program, the Kashmir dispute, our relations with India or our position vis-a-vis Afghanistan," said a senior Foreign Ministry official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the relationship. "So long as Washington does not revisit these issues, it will continue to be very difficult for Washington to make any headway on winning hearts and minds in Pakistan."

The United States views Pakistan as a critical ally in fighting the extremists who have taken refuge in Pakistan's mountainous tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. But the two governments remain wary of each other, and U.S. officials have often cast doubt on whether Pakistan is doing all that it can to combat radical Islamist insurgents - many of whom have long-standing ties to the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, emphasized this week that Obama's three-day visit to India is not at Pakistan's expense. But that has not stopped Pakistanis from interpreting it that way. In recent years, U.S. presidents have often coupled visits to India with a stop in Pakistan - even if it is brief. Though Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi requested several times that Obama also stop in Pakistan on this trip, according to Pakistani government officials, the president declined and instead promised to visit Islamabad next year.

Still, the decision could prove risky for Obama, whose popularity here is lower than it is in any other Muslim country. A Pew Research Center poll released this summer found that just 8 percent of Pakistanis expressed confidence in Obama, down from 13 percent in 2009. Pakistani officials say they are particularly interested in seeing Obama push India to do more to settle the decades-old dispute over Kashmir, which is claimed by both India and Pakistan. More than 100 Kashmiris, mostly young people, have been killed since June in a series of anti-Indian demonstrations in the region. India has said Pakistan must get serious about cracking down on homegrown militancy before there can be an agreement on Kashmir.
Yet even if Obama refrains from challenging Pakistan directly, officials here said, they fear the president will seek to enhance the civil nuclear partnership with India. That, they said, could disturb the military balance on the subcontinent. "If there is an effort to build India up as a regional influence, a country that is assigned the responsibility for security in the region, that is unacceptable for Pakistan," said Maleeha Lodhi, another former ambassador to Washington. "Clearly, for deterrence to work, we need the minimum threshold of conventional balance."

It seems that the India visit will be a like a tight-rope walking for the President. Balance of power aside, he will have to keep a balance of relations with India and Pakistan. None of the two balances the President can afford to disturb at this point in time.  

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