(This is a longer version of an interview with Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, which was published in DNA edition dated October 9, 2010.)
Strained relations between the US and Pakistan, which are notionally allies in the war on terror in Afghanistan, came close to a breaking point last week when Pakistan shut down a crossing on the Af-Pak border used by NATO troops. Yet, the US cannot walk away from its troubled relationship, short of a “game-changer” event such as a successful terrorist strike in the US that emanates from Pakistani soil, explains Lisa Curtis, a South Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation who served in former President George W Bush’s administration. In an interview to DNA’s Venky Vembu, Curtis reasons that the Kashmir issue – which Pakistan projects as a “core issue” – is a red-herring, and the Obama administration has overcome its initial “naivete” on this issue. Excerpts:
In the light of last week’s events, how would you characterise the state of relations between US and Pakistan?
This is a period of high tension. For the first time, Pakistan has closed down a border crossing on NATO’s supply route. It looks like they did it primarily because of an incident where a NATO helicopter hit a Pakistani army post, but there’s also frustration in Pakistan over the escalated drone strikes in the region. There were a record 22 drone strikes in September, and even though Pakistani forces allow these strikes to occur, the Pakistani public is getting to feel it’s an infringement on their sovereignty and that the US is taking Pakistani cooperation in the war on terrorism for granted.
It will help that have the US Ambassador has officially apologised: that’s one of the things Pakistan was looking for because there was no immediate apology for the incident, and instead NATO had tried to defend its actions by saying it was acting in self-defence. What the investigation showed is that the Pakistani soldiers had been firing in the air and had not been firing at the NATO aircraft. This led the US to issue a sincere apology, and I think we’ll see the border crossing opened in the next few days
Is Pakistan a reliable partner in the war on terror?
It’s widely recognised in the US that Pakistan is not a reliable partner. The US does receive some cooperation from Pakistan in terms of information to disrupt terrorist plots and fighting militants in the tribal areas. But, there’s also a lack of consistent cooperation against terrorist groups like the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban that are still fighting US forces in Afghanistan. This leaves US officials frustrated in developing an effective Pakistan policy. They want to continue the tactical cooperation they’re getting, but they don’t know how to secure strategic cooperation for the US to win the war in Afghanistan.
Will the drone strikes be scaled back to placate Pakistani sensitivities?
I don’t think so. The US has increased the drone campaign in part because they received streams of intelligence about potential terror plots under way. It looks like the strikes were able to eliminate some of people involved in that plot. The US will make decisions on drone strikes based on what is necessary to protect US citizens from futures terror strikes – not based on any complaints that Pakistan may have on the issue. If there is information, and they have some terrorists in their sights, they will depend on the drone campaign.
Certainly the drones are an imperfect tool, but they’re the only tool the US has to disrupt terrorist attacks because Pakistan has not been able to get the situation under control and they have been either unwilling or incapable of dealing with threats on its own.
Recent media accounts citing White House documents note that Pakistan is pressing Taliban field commanders to attack Nato and Afghan forces. Doesn’t the US have leverage over Pakistan to challenge its double-dealing on terrorism?
The US doesn’t have adequate leverage over Pakistan: the billions of dollars in aid it provided Pakistan over 8-9 years has secured very little leverage. People are scratching their heads trying to figure out what how to develop an effective policy towards Pakistan. What tends to trump the conversations is the fact that people believe things could get much worse in Pakistan: if the US pushes too hard, we could have a situation where you have a rogue Pakistan in control of nuclear weapons, a nightmare scenario. One of the reasons we can’t develop our leverage over Pakistan is because there is such a high risk of instability.
How far do the current problems in US-Pakistan relations influence the US longer term strategy in Afghanistan?
I think the only way the US can succeed in Afghanistan is if it revokes the withdrawal date.
I think the establishment of the July 2011 withdrawal timeline has been detrimental to the overall US strategy and detrimental to the US getting cooperation from Pakistan. That’s because Pakistanis calculate that the US will pull out; we’re reinforcing their perceived need to continue to hedge on their support for the Taliban.
The only way we can get full cooperation from Pakistan is to show more of a commitment to stabilising Afghanistan. If Gen Petraeus is able to show some success within the next three to six months, he’ll be able to make a stronger case for the US sustaining its commitment to Afghanistan. Frankly, from a logistical resource perspective, the US can sustain a troop force of 100,000 in Afghanistan as long as it wants. It comes down to being a political decision. The hope is that the US military leadership will be able to convince President Obama that it’s in US national security interests to continue the mission in Afghanistan – not forever but for a few more years.
Cannot NATO troops and the US end their reliance on Pakistan for supply routes to Afghanistan?
We should be doing everything we can to find alternatives to the Pakistani supply routes. But that said, I don’t think we’ll ever be able to replace what Pakistan provide. But even reducing our dependence would send a signal to Pakistan: if it continues to support terrorist groups and in the event of a successful terrorist attack in the US, there would be some form of retaliatory strikes against Pakistan. I don’t think we’re going to see any change in the status quo until – god forbid! – there’s a successful terrorist attack in the US. We should do everything to prevent such a possibility. This requires Pakistan to do more, and if we have to use some more stick – rather than continue to pour in aid – we should be doing it.
It’s almost like the US is stuck in a bad marriage it can’t walk out of…
That’s a good analogy: it is a bad marriage the US can’t walk out of. The US needs the cooperation it gets from Pakistan, and to that extent it does need Pakistan. And Pakistan too needs the US: it relies on US assistance. There is mutual dependency, but certainly the relationship isn’t to the satisfaction of either side.
It’s difficult to say what the breaking point will be. But I’d speculate that a successful terrorist strike in the US that emanates from Pakistan’s tribal areas would probably represent a game-changer.
To secure greater leverage over Pakistan, will the US offer it concessions on Kashmir?
I don’t think so. The Kashmir issue is more a symptom of the larger problem between India and Pakistan; it’s not as if dealing with Kashmir will make these terrorist groups melt away. The aims of India-focussed groups like the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba are broader than Kashmir: they’re trying to wreak havoc throughout India and dent India’s image as an emerging power. They use the situation in Kashmir to justify what they’re doing, but they’re not interested in Kashmir. The idea that if the US intervenes in Kashmir, it would help focus Pakistan’s attention on dealing with militant groups is a mischaracterisation of the problem and a misunderstanding of the situation. The focus should be on convincing Pakistan to crack down on these groups for the sake of its own stability. It’s somewhat ironic that the non-state actors that Pakistan supported to destabilise India are now destabilising Pakistan. The sooner Pakistan accepts that reality, the better for it.
Is there a sufficient appreciation within the Obama administration of the point you make: that Kashmir is a red herring?
There’s increased understanding on this point. Initially there was some naivete on the part of the Obama administration: a connection was mistakenly made that if the US could resolve Kashmir, the problems of South Asia would go away. That’s typical of new administrations: they come in with an idealistic view that the US can wave its magic wand and resolve problems.
Kashmir represents Pakistani paranoia about a growing and emerging India. At the heart of the issue is convincing Pakistan that building up its own economy is the best way for it to protect its regional interests, not trying to wreak havoc on its neighbours and sponsor non-state actors.
I think there’s a growing understanding within the Obama administration on this point, so we won’t see President Obama trying to seek a high profile role on Kashmir. He’s learnt the lesson from when as a presidential candidate he promoted the idea of a Kashmir envoy. He may raise the issue in private meetings and seek to get more information to enhance his own understanding of the region. The best way to pursue this may be encourage New Delhi to deal with Kashmiri grievances, which we’ve seen over this summer. But the other part of it is convincing Pakistan not to take advantage of this situation like it did throughout the 1990s when it supported insurgent groups in the region.
What are the big-ticket items on the agenda of President Obama’s upcoming visit to India?
I think President Obama will want to signal India’s importance not only as a South Asian power, but as an East Asian power. I think he will probably talk about India’s role in her region and globally. He will talk about the areas where the US and India can cooperate – whether it be clean energy, agricultural cooperation and other such areas. He will address some issues that are important to India, such as the Entities List and access to sophisticated US technology, defence trade…
How much of an irritant is the Nuclear Liability Bill?
I think President Obama will not make the nuclear liability issue a centrepiece of his agenda. First, he has other issues he would like to focus the relationship around; second, this has become quite a hote potato in the Indian political context. I think he will probably steer away from that issue; but it may come up in private meetings.
When President Obama travelled to China last year, the Sino-US joint declaration was perceived in India as giving China licence to interfere in South Asia. In the light of recent tensions between the US and China, will President Obama seek in some way to enhance the strategic relationship between the US and India in the way that George W. Bush did?
I think he might address Indian sensibility on US-China relations and the issue of whether or not China plays a larger role in South Asia by talking about specific cooperation between the US and India that sort of addresses the challenge of a rising China – and that would be maritime cooperation – in the context of China taking a more aggressive stance with respect to its territorial claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, and of course the border dispute and of course the border dispute with India.
We will likely see President Obama being forward–leaning in terms of US-India cooperation in the Indian Ocean with an eye towards the China challenge. But I doubt he will make any specific references; I don’t think India too will want to be seen as being used by the US as a counterweight. But there are subtle ways to signal that the US is prepared to cooperate in new ways that will deal with the challenge of a rising China.