Since the independence of Pakistan and India as independent nation-states, the United States has never been so detached from the affairs of South Asia as it is now. In the wake of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US Administration downgraded its relations with its key Cold War ally, Pakistan, but continued to play a crucial role in reducing military tensions between Pakistan and India.
In 1987, at the time of the Brass Tack military exercises by the Indian Army, and in 1990, in the immediate wake of an uprising in Kashmir, when India again brought its armored formation close to the Pakistan border in Punjab, Washington was a key player in acting as a mediator to wean the two military rivals away from a conflict. Again, in the period between December 2001 and October 2002, in the wake of a militant attack on Indian parliament, it was American mediation that brought about de-escalation. In all of these military crises, the Pakistani narrative continued to push the myth of its nuclear deterrent, which was instrumental in keeping India from attacking Pakistan.
According to this narrative’s myths, in 1987 Dr A. Q. Khan boasting about Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in an interview with Indian journalist Kuldip Nayyar supposedly terrified Indian decision makers into withdrawing its troops from Pakistani the border. In 1990, according to this narrative, the Indians were informed by US intelligence about American satellites picking up images of Pakistan moving its nuclear assets close to the Indian border, and that did the trick. General Musharraf’s bold assertions during the 2002 military crisis forced the Indians to withdraw their troops from the international border. These mythical stories provided the backdrop of American diplomacy carried out to defuse tensions in South Asia. Whether it was American diplomacy that averted the wars or whether it was Pakistani deterrent that prevented India from attacking Pakistan, is a debatable question.
The situation Afghanistan finds itself in is not Pakistan’s doing alone, nor it was created in a day. An avalanche of foreign interference and spy games over 5 decades made Afghanistan into a hotbed of international terrorism. But it will be Pakistan alone which will have to face down the barrel of military escalation if anything goes wrong in the region.
The repeated assertions from US diplomats in recent weeks indicated American willingness to help resolve Pakistan’s problems with India. The US Administration has shown a lukewarm interest in helping Pakistan improve its border management with Afghanistan - a country which only a year ago took a plunge into the world of international terrorism when a former militant organization, the Afghan Taliban, wrestled power in Kabul. Now, Pakistan’s geostrategic situation has to be viewed in the light of the threat posed by the existence of forces of international terrorism on its western border. Some Pakistani officials and leaders have made cryptic assertions over the country's concerns about the existence of international terror groups in Afghanistan.
What Pakistan should fear is the possibility of these international terror groups making a foray into neighboring countries. If these terror groups dare to carry out a Mass Casualty Attack (MCA) in any neighboring country, especially India, like the one they carried out in Mumbai in 2008, this could lead to unprecedented military tension in the region. The Taliban will likely provide shelter to or tacitly tolerate a myriad of terror groups in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s security apparatus has been put in the unenviable position of defending regional security all alone against the forces of international terrorism.
The situation Afghanistan finds itself in is not Pakistan’s doing alone, nor it was created in a day. An avalanche of foreign interference and spy games over 5 decades made Afghanistan into a hotbed of international terrorism. But it will be Pakistan alone which will have to face down the barrel of military escalation if anything goes wrong in the region. Pakistan’s economy is already in horrific situation and any more military tensions with India as a result of future terror attacks would be devastating for Pakistan’s prospects for prosperity and growth. The climate of political uncertainty that gripped the General Musharraf regime in 2007 had started to develop in the years following the 2002 escalation.
All previous US diplomatic interventions in the region to avert war or a major military showdown brought high profile US diplomacy into action in South Asia. In 1987 and 2002, the US security establishment was deeply involved in Afghanistan and it was not possible for them to ignore what was happening in South Asia. In 1987, the Americans were supporting the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets and in 2002, the US military had just invaded Afghanistan. In 1990, the US was close to winning the Cold War and nuclear proliferation lobbies held considerable sway in Washington. Therefore, the US administration sent a senior CIA official to New Delhi and Islamabad to defuse tensions, which were likely to assume a nuclear dimension. The US military officials monitored the movement of troops formations on both sides of the international border and reported them to both military headquarters to avoid misunderstanding.
Two significant developments will shape Washington’s response to any future military crisis in South Asia. In the American strategic calculus, the importance of Pakistan has apparently dwindled and Washington has practically abandoned Afghanistan. Its military, political and diplomatic footprint on the ground in this region are close to non-existent. US experts have themselves opined in recent years that Washington’s ability to influence decision-making has dwindled in case of any future mass casualty attack inside India.
The Americans’ persistent involvement in Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion and Washington’s corresponding interests in South Asia no longer exists as a political and military reality in the region.
Diplomatic historians in both South Asia and the United States give complete credit to US diplomacy for the avoidance of war in the military crises that have threatened to devolve into war. The Pakistani popular narrative, however, credits Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent as the critical factor in preventing India from attacking Pakistan.
The problem with Pakistan’s popular narrative is that in 2019 the India did cross Pakistan’s red line and attacked mainland Pakistan, instead of carrying out an attack in Kashmir across the Line of Control. The myth of Pakistan’s nuclear deterrent preventing India from attacking mainland Pakistan was shattered, with India launching an air strike near, the targeting ability of the Indians notwithstanding.
There is little chance that the US involvement in the region will acquire any meaningful significance and alter the military or political reality in South Asia.
The Americans’ persistent involvement in Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion and Washington’s corresponding interests in South Asia no longer exists as a political and military reality in the region. The US, however, appears to remain deeply committed to promoting India as a counterweight to China. During a recent trip to Washington by Foreign Minister Bhutto, US officials announced a meagre sum as assistance to Pakistan for improving border management with Afghanistan.
American officials notedly have also been offering to help Pakistan deal with the Taliban threat, as well as providing assistance to Islamabad to help resolve its problems with India. Perhaps there is a coded subtext in this situation. Not only will Pakistan be required to play the role of border guard on its western frontier - which for all practical purposes act as a border with the whole of the South Asian region against the forces of international terrorism in Afghanistan, it would also have to reconcile itself to the interests of its larger South Asian neighbor, India.
Pakistan should start by asking the Americans about what their geopolitical vision for South Asia looks like, especially when they talk about assisting Pakistan in dealing with the TTP threat and helping it resolve its problems with India.
There is little chance that the US involvement in the region will acquire any meaningful significance and alter the military or political reality in South Asia. The US has not demonstrated a willingness to make a major investment in any diplomatic efforts to make its perspective a reality in the region either.
I guess it is worth asking if Pakistan has a corresponding vision of its own in this regional situation. What that looks like should be subject to a larger public debate.