NO American president has ever encouraged any aggression on India’s part towards Pakistan. Invariably, American presidents have worked for peace, especially after the two countries acquired nuclear status. Islamabad might have often felt disappointed by America’s refusal to be more categorical on issues such as the Kashmiris’ right to self-determination, but the standard line pursued by all American presidents has been to urge Pakistan and India to work for peace.
In December 2001, when the Indian parliament building was attacked and India massed troops on Pakistan’s borders, the Republican administration cautioned the two countries to exercise restraint. In fact, behind the scenes President Bush and then Secretary of State Colin Powell worked hard to lower tensions to avoid a war. However, last Monday, president-elect Barack Obama seemed to have ditched this time-honoured American policy. Obama did not use the word ‘retaliate’ but the implications of his remarks can be understood in the context of his affirmative response to a newsman’s question at a press conference. The newsman reminded him of his campaign pledge that he would attack Pakistan if he had actionable intelligence and asked him whether India had the same ‘right’. Obama replied, “I think that sovereign nations, obviously, have the right to protect themselves.” Does this mean that, for the first time in the six decades of America’s relationship with the subcontinent, a US president-elect is encouraging belligerence instead of working for peace? His words that America would “remain steadfast in India’s efforts to catch the perpetrators” of the Mumbai attacks come at a time when India is in the grip of anger.
There are concerns that India has benefited from the war on terror and has managed to advance its national interests. After all, the relationship between Pakistan and India did not begin on the day the terrorists attacked Mumbai; it goes deep into history. The Kashmir dispute has existed since 1947 and the two countries have fought four wars, with a fifth one averted following the attack on the Indian parliament. Instead of trying to mediate as an honest broker America’s next president appears to be fanning hostilities. He may be doing so to gain India’s trust or because of his suspicions regarding the role of Pakistan’s spy agencies in making trouble for India, but his statement will only encourage pro-Taliban parties and promote extremist sentiments in Pakistan.
The government has to address the issue coolly. Overreaction to New Delhi’s demands would mean disastrous consequences for the region. Pakistan must continue to pursue the war on terror and point out to its allies the consequences of a conflict in the subcontinent, indicating how this would be counterproductive and make the terrorists more powerful.