The War in South Asia

Pakistani soldiers march during the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad in 2015. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)
The time has come to cut Islamabad loose and recognize Pakistan for what it is.

Foreign-policy intellectuals have worried about a possible confrontation between South Asia’s nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, since the two engaged in tit-for-tat bomb tests in the late 1990s. As the nationalist government of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi weighs its retaliatory options after a mass-murder attack by Jaish-e-Mohammad — a terrorist organization based in Pakistan and sustained by the Pakistani covert-operations service — there is talk of open war on both sides, and more than a little anticipation of it.

Such a conflict would not serve U.S. interests and should be prevented if possible.

In a sense, India and Pakistan already are at war — a slow, grinding, desultory one rather than an open and more terrifying one, but one that is no less dangerous for that — and that danger extends to American interests, which are not limited to the prevention of a nuclear exchange in the region.

The United States is, at the moment, exhausted by its overseas military commitments, and the ruling presumption of our domestic politics is that every dollar spent on U.S. military commitments from prosperous Germany to disintegrating Syria could be better spent filling potholes in Sheboygan or funding a new national corps of babysitters. The United States is at this very moment attempting to disentangle itself from that part of the world as an Afghanistan campaign of nearly 20 years’ duration comes to its unsettling conclusion.

Entanglement is easy. Disentanglement is tricky, as the Trump administration’s recent decision to partially reverse its earlier decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria shows.

The question of U.S. interests and attitudes in South Asia is complicated, not least by the fact that our national-security posture toward the subcontinent remains, for reasons of institutional inertia, too much informed by outmoded Cold War calculations aimed at containing a Soviet menace that no longer exists and hasn’t for a long time. India’s “nonaligned” posture during the Cold War made it a limited-purpose Soviet client state, which encouraged the United States to build up (and attempt to quietly manage) Pakistan and its military apparatus.

That no longer serves our interests and has not for some time. After a 2017 meeting with the U.S. secretary of state, Pakistan’s foreign minister bemoaned the “trust deficit” that existed between the two nations, which is a nice way of saying that the United States knows that Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, tips off jihadists in Afghanistan and elsewhere to help them avoid U.S. actions, that it is knee-deep in jihadists instigation, that Pakistan provided safe haven to the Taliban and other jihadists, and that the Pakistani government siphons off U.S. aid money to fill up the bank accounts of its politicians and, in all likelihood, to help fund covert operations such as the recent terror attack against India. President Donald Trump has complained that the government of Pakistan provides the United States with “nothing but lies and deceit.”

Pakistan’s current prime minister, Imran Khan, is a cricket-player by profession. He is a relatively liberal Oxonian but one who is easily bent by the mandates of Pakistani politics, which now include both assuaging Islamists at home and also the need to satisfy demanding patrons in Riyadh and Beijing. In 2017, India attempted to have the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad placed on the UN’s designated-terrorist list, a move blocked by China. That kind of help comes at a price. It is not pleasant to think what opportunities China might discover in an all-out war on the subcontinent.

India, in contrast, is the most natural of U.S. allies, and not only or even principally because of its robust democracy and increasingly global economy. The facts on the ground are this: India is a country with China on one side and a world of bloody-minded jihadists on the other; its two most consequential foreign-policy variables are also our own.

Here are some other variables: India’s armed forces are hampered by logistical inadequacies and other challenges associated with the country’s dysfunctional and overly bureaucratic government, but its army is twice the size of Pakistan’s, and it enjoys an advantage in everything from artillery to air power to its (modest) naval capacity. That advantage has given rise to the “Cold Start” doctrine, which holds that if open war with Pakistan appears to be inevitable — and who knows what that means in New Delhi? — then the most effective strategy would be to immediately overwhelm Pakistan and reduce its military forces to inaction before the government can order a nuclear strike. But that is a tall order: With Chinese assistance, Pakistan has developed a mobile short-range nuclear-missile capability specifically to discourage a “Cold Start” assault.

That means a roll of the dice that would not in the interest of the United States.

The time has come to cut Islamabad loose and recognize Pakistan for what it is: a state sponsor of terrorism. That the Pakistani state (and some Pakistani territory) is not entirely under the control of the Pakistani government and its elected leaders does not change the facts of the case. The United States should give Islamabad a date certain by which to get its act together or face sanctions under the relevant statutes.

The Trump administration should offer this to Modi in exchange for keeping India’s troops — and India’s missiles — on India’s side of the border.

If, in turn, Imran Khan and his government require international help in doing what needs doing, then a good-faith effort by Islamabad would certainly enjoy broad support, and not only from the United States. But Pakistan’s troubles run very deep: They are bred into its institutions and, to some extent, into its national political foundation, which is rooted in the belief that Muslims can truly flourish only in a polity in which Muslims predominate. The very different evolutions of Pakistan and India since 1947 give the lie to that belief, but Pakistan would not be the first nation to be governed by a lie.

The question is not whether there are American interests at stake. The question is whether we will pursue those interests on our own terms and under our own initiative rather than react to events beyond our immediate control.

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