Obama and India-Pakistan talks: US can be a better go-between

The Feb. 25 India-Pakistan talks, while welcome, did not go well. The US must intervene in this South Asian rivalry to keep it from affecting the Afghanistan war. 

The war in Afghanistan is now clearly President Obama’s war after his surge of 30,000 troops and the successful retaking of a former Taliban stronghold in Marjah this past week by US forces. 

But there is also a diplomatic front, one in which Mr. Obama will need another surge: improved relations between India and Pakistan, two key players in the region.

Just how soon Obama will be able to bring US soldiers home from Afghanistan depends to a certain extent on whether these nuclear-armed adversaries in South Asia can end their historic rivalry, especially their maneuvering for influence in neighboring Afghanistan.

With a 63-year history of hostility and three wars dragging down their relations, India and Pakistan held talks Feb. 25 – partly under US pressure. India had cut off formal peacemaking contact after the 2008 attacks in Mumbai (Bombay) by Pakistan-linked terrorists.

The talks in New Delhi did not go very well. There was no agreement to meet again, only a suggestion to “keep in touch.” No joint statement, no joint press conference, and lots of finger-pointing.  

What’s more, a bomb explosion in Kabul on Friday seemed to be targeted at Indians living in the Afghan capital, perhaps an attempt by pro-Pakistan militants to disrupt further talks.

All this points to the need for Obama and his special envoy, Richard Holbrooke, to be more forceful in reconciling India and Pakistan as part of a regional approach to ending the Afghan war. 

Pakistan can’t very well root out Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other militants along its Afghan border if its military still remains focused on a perceived threat from India. More of its forces need to be transferred from the border with India to the mountainous frontier with Afghanistan.

And India can’t very well trust Pakistan not to go back to its old pattern of supporting terrorists like the Afghan Taliban or the anti-Indian militants seeking to liberate the disputed territory of Kashmir.

This tangled web of differences may not be easily untied by India and Pakistan by themselves.

Yes, both countries have strategic incentives to warm up to each other, especially in viewing terrorism as a joint enemy. 

India is trying to match China’s bid for influence in the region. And it needs an end to terrorist attacks on its soil by Pakistan-related terrorists in order to keep its economy humming at about 9 percent and to reduce massive poverty. 

Pakistan, meanwhile, has revived its fragile democracy since 2007 and last year finally awakened to the internal threat to its stability from jihadist groups. But it has not gone far enough to eliminate those militants or to turn over suspects in the 2008 Mumbai bombing to India.

For now, the US cannot mediate their specific differences, especially on Kashmir. (The US tried to mediate that conflict in the early 1960s only to further push India away from any alliance with the US during the cold war.) As a rising power, India resists a strong US hand in the region although it seeks a global partnership with America. 

The Obama administration can certainly do more to push the two back to the negotiating table. To help that along, it must continue to win the trust of both nations as long-term partners. 

The US should improve ties with the Pakistani military and treat Pakistan with as much long-term strategic interest as it does India. And it must further its growing alliance with India and pressure Pakistan to arrest anti-India militants.

Only with an even-handed approach will the US be able to keep the two countries on the road to negotiations and help end a long feud that spills over into Afghanistan. 

Sometimes wars are fought far from the battlefield. Obama’s success as commander in chief in Afghanistan will also depend on his diplomatic skills in South Asia’s long cold war.

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