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Tuesday, May 12, 2009    


Nehru, Obama and U.S. support for Pakistan

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Chicago, IL, United States, — Poll after poll shows that most Americans view India, not Pakistan, as their ally – a kindred democracy fighting a common Islamist enemy. Nevertheless, when I was in India throughout March, the question I was asked most frequently was, “Why is the United States supporting Pakistan?”

Even before U.S. President Barack Obama’s March 27 speech, in which he announced a strengthened U.S. commitment to Pakistan, trepidation had been building. Admitted supporters of the U.S. president told me in New Delhi’s Connaught Place that Obama’s pro-Pakistan tilt varied from their pre-election expectations.

One IT professional said that Obama’s words were “inspiring,” but given current developments, “we will have to see how they are translated into action.” Another young man expressed a growing sentiment that Obama’s actions are meant to “insure that the American people are safe,” regardless of “lives of other people of other countries.”

But Obama pledged in his speech an additional US$1.5 billion annually to Pakistan and identified it – not India – as an ally in fighting the Taliban.

Indians found that especially baffling since Pakistan has shown a decided inability and lack of desire to take on Islamist terrorists, while Indians have been laying down their lives in that struggle.

Even Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher seemed uncomfortably aware of the inconsistency. Shortly after Obama spoke, a CNN-IBN correspondent asked Boucher if he thought the Pakistanis had the “ability and willingness” to fight the Taliban as Obama said they would.

“Let me put it this way,” Boucher replied. “We talked to all the senior people there … and they said they wanted to.”

They “wanted to?” That was Boucher’s ringing support? No wonder Indians are concerned. Many Americans are working to change that policy, but India has a role in that, too, for U.S. policy can be traced in part to Indian decisions decades ago.

People in the U.S. State Department are no different than their counterparts elsewhere. They depend on contacts and authoritative people “on the ground” worldwide, people with inside information and expertise impossible to garner from halfway around the world.

In the 1950s, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a critical decision to minimize contacts with the United States and thereby gave Pakistan that exclusive role. In 1955, he founded the Non-Aligned Movement, which was nonaligned in name only. Look at Nehru’s cohorts: Gamal Abdul Nasser, whose Egypt was a major Soviet ally and large recipient of Soviet aid; Josip Broz Tito, while a communist gadfly, solidly in that camp; Marxist Kwame Nkrumah; and Indonesia’s Sukarno, aligned with China and North Korea.

India itself became ever more dependent on Soviet aid and welcomed legions of Soviet advisors and experts. Only in the early 1990s did India, along with others, realize it had backed the wrong side in the Cold War and had to reorient its policies.

For almost four decades, when U.S. diplomats and advisors needed someone with inside information or to confirm their hunches, they would call their contacts, all of whom were Pakistani. For decades, Pakistanis – and only Pakistanis – were the ones upon whom they relied and the ones who helped their careers.


is no wonder that the experts advising Obama see the world through that Pakistani prism and really do believe them when they say they will fight the radicals. Since then some things might have changed, but not those decades-long relationships. Moreover, Indian leaders often allow their desire to be politically correct on other issues – such as Iraq and at times Israel – to take precedence over Indian interests. But all is not lost.

Washington is a city crawling with lobbyists. Everyone has them, including India. The challenge India is now facing is to make India Washington’s major source of information; to convince people to call an Indian, not a Pakistani, when they need good information about South Asia. That must be a priority for everyone from the Indian Embassy to paid lobbyists and Indian officials who meet with their U.S. counterparts.

India should also push its own plans to counter Pakistan’s. For instance, Obama spoke of regional cooperation. Since Indian troops were so successful against Kashmiri terrorists, let them take on that fight, so Pakistan can move its troops from there to fight the Taliban. That only makes sense if Obama and the Pakistanis were serious about cooperating and fighting terrorists.

There are a myriad of ways India can shift its relationship with the United States, and the American people are ready for this. That

is the challenge facing those who want to see a change in U.S. policies in South Asia.


(Dr. Richard L. Benkin is vice president of Gallagher Bassett Services in Chicago, Illinois. He is also U.S. correspondent for the “Weekly Blitz,” published in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and special advisor on Bangladeshi affairs to the Washington D.C.-based Intelligence Summit. He has written numerous essays and commentaries on the Middle East, Bangladesh and South Asia. He can be contacted at ©Copyright Richard L. Benkin)


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