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Obama must support India-Pakistan rapprochement

Amid all the bad news, there is a bit of hope in South Asia: India and Pakistan have restarted their peace dialogue, with greater economic engagement. The Obama administration should reinforce this effort, which would help US security interests in the region, especially in Afghanistan.

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One of the keys to the original Marshall Plan’s far-reaching success was the major financial inducement it gave European countries devastated by World War II to frame their economic futures in conjunction with their neighbors. By putting an emphasis on reconstruction projects that crossed national frontiers, it was an important catalyst for the historic reconciliation between France and Germany and paved the way for the deep economic integration embodied in today’s European Union.

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A similar vision should inspire a US effort to bolster cross-border economic cooperation between India and Pakistan. This initiative would be aimed at helping the two countries, on a joint basis, upgrade and expand the meager trade, transportation, and energy infrastructure presently connecting them.

It would support, for example, projects that increase road and rail linkages, as well as the number and capacity of customs posts. It would help provide resources for modernized seaport facilities that enable more two-way trade. And with each country plagued by chronic power shortages, it would provide seed capital for cross-border energy projects such as joint electrical grids or the proposed natural gas pipeline connecting Central and South Asia via Afghanistan.

The original Marshall Plan entailed a staggering sum of money – well over $100 billion in today’s terms – and an austerity-minded US Congress would certainly balk at any scheme with a similar price tag. But the initiative outlined here need only entail a modest level of expenditures – say, $50-75 million per year over a five-year period – and could be paid for by redirecting funding already authorized under the 2009 Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act.

Better known as the Kerry-Lugar-Berman bill, the act provides $1.5 billion annually in non-military assistance to Pakistan through 2013. But due to a variety of factors, much of its economic development funds remain unspent.

This effort would also dovetail well with the Obama administration’s “New Silk Road” initiative that is designed to ensure Afghanistan’s economic viability by building it up as a regional trade and transit hub. Additional countries, such as those Washington has already enlisted in the Silk Road plan, also could be invited to contribute resources.

Obviously, this initiative offers no magic bullet for transforming the singular intensity of the India-Pakistan rivalry or the complex security dynamics in Afghanistan. But it would be a creative investment in nurturing promising though still fragile developments already underway in South Asia. And these efforts would make US interests throughout the entire region vastly easier to safeguard than they are today.

If they take root over the long term, these developments would help encourage a more constructive Pakistani approach in Afghanistan, which Islamabad regards as a theater for its endemic rivalry with New Delhi.

Promoting a better rapport between Pakistan and India would also aid in steering a nuclear-armed but deeply dysfunctional Pakistan away from failed state status. That is a harrowing prospect many believe is all too plausible unless Islamabad looks upon its ever-richer neighbor as an economic opportunity rather an existential threat.

David J. Karl is president of the Asia Strategy Initiative, a political and economic consultancy in Los Angeles. He earlier served as project director of the Task Force on Enhancing India-US Cooperation in the Global Innovation Economy, jointly sponsored by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry and the Pacific Council on International Policy.


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