India lacks the sort of intense interest that Israel generates in American politics, so it is easy to overlook the damage that the Obama administration has done to our relations with a natural ally that is also the world’s largest democracy, an economic giant and a burgeoning military power. A friend calls my attention to this op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by G. Parthasarathy, a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan. He writes:

Very little was said publicly about U.S. President Barack Obama’s meeting Sunday with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at Blair House in Washington. That’s probably because neither side wants to draw attention to just how strained this important bilateral relationship has become over the past year.

One of the biggest sticking points is how to deal with Afghanistan. The Obama administration has promised to “reconcile” with the Taliban and talks openly about U.S. troop withdrawals, commencing in 2011. Both points deeply disturb New Delhi, whose long history of dealing with terrorism suggests the U.S. approach won’t work. The U.S. has also shunned advance consultations on Afghanistan with its Indian partners.

As a result, India is rethinking its approach, which it has long coordinated with Washington, and a review of Afghan policy is now underway. There are indications that New Delhi is going to hedge its bets and enhance contacts and cooperation with Russia and Afghanistan’s neighbors of Iran, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, which share India’s aversion for any return of the Taliban.

Indian analysts have been warning about the consequences of handing India the bill for Washington’s failed policy in Pakistan. I wrote about this in Asia Times at year-end:

Western analysts are unanimous that Pakistan must not be allowed to become a failed state, for example, through a seizure of power on the part of Islamist elements in the military allied to the Taliban. Enlisting Pakistan in counter-insurgency against Pashtun rebels in Afghanistan, though, ensures this outcome. US policy, wrote Syed Saleem Shahzad on this site on October 23 (Where Pakistan’s militants go to ground ), “draws Pakistan, already mired in political and economic crises, into an ever-deepening quagmire. The country has become a playing field for operators of all shades. These include Iranian Balochi insurgents, over a dozen Pakistani militant groups linked with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, the US Central Intelligence Agency’s network, securitycontractors associated with the American establishment, and last but not least, agents provocateurs. Pakistan, one of the booming economies of Asia just two years ago, seriously risks becoming a failed state.”

The US-sponsored frontier war amounts to Punjabis - traditionally the core of the country’s military - killing Pashtuns. The default view of area defense analysts has been that army operations against the Taliban may turn into a Punjabi-Pashtun ethnic conflict. But the cracks in the Pakistani state run in several directions. Punjabi Islamists allied to the Taliban, meanwhile, are in open revolt; Punjabi terrorists took part in the October siege of Pakistan’s army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Pakistan is being ground between two millstones: the Afghan war and the global economic crisis. Half the country is illiterate, and half of Pakistanis live on less than US$1 a day. The country’s respectable economic growth rate of 5% per annum during the late 2000s was fed by foreign credit, which allowed it to run a current-account deficit of 8.3% as of 2008. The country’s finances collapsed in late 2008, forcing Islamabad to adopt an austerity program under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. “Pakistan is not yet a failed economy,” wrote Santosh Kumar in The Hindu on November 24. “But it can happen. This is not a prospect the world, especially India, can view with equanimity, since the spillover will impact us badly.”

The credibility of secular government - with its promise of economic improvement - is threadbare. The alternative is an Islamist regime committed to confronting India over Kashmir and suppressing the Shi’ite minority that comprises 30% of Pakistan’s population. The Islamist alternative has such appeal that Punjabi terrorists, as noted, are conducting suicide attacks against the Punjabi-dominated army.

India might be compelled to respond to the victory of Islamist radicals in its nuclear-armed neighbor. Iran, for that matter, cannot maintain its credibility with its Shi’ite allies around the region if it sits on its hands while Pakistan crushes its co-confessionalists. Iran’s interest in obtaining nuclear weapons has several motivations. One is to establish a screen of deterrence behind which it can grab its neighbors’ oil, as it proposed to do by sending a division of the Iranian army to surround an Iraqi oilfield last week. Another is to prepare for prospective conflict with Pakistan; if Pakistan fails, Iran will have a strong interest in interfering in Pakistan on behalf of the Shi’ite minority.

The Obama administration’s response to the threat of Islamist takeover has been “to pick a new fight with India on Kashmir”, as Indian analyst C Raja Mohan complained in the online edition of Forbes magazine on November 8:

Obama has also sensed, rightly, that the US cannot stabilize Afghanistan unless it fixes Pakistan’s profound insecurities and gets its army to level with the US and stop supporting America’s enemies inAfghanistan. Few Indians disagree with Obama’s reasoning that the threats to Pakistan’s security are internal and do not come from India. But many are beginning to get anxious about the third step in Obama’s logic: to get Pakistan to cooperate with the US in Afghanistan, Washington must actively seek to resolve Islamabad’s problem with New Delhi over Kashmir. Put simply, the Indian fear is that they are being asked to pick up the political tab for America’s failed policy in Afghanistan, and for the Pakistan Army’s deliberate betrayal of US interests there.The Obama administration has antagonized India in the hope of mollifying Pakistani irredentism, just as it has antagonized Israel with the dubious argument that if Israel makes concessions to the divided, ineffectual Palestine Authority, it will be able to mollifyIran. Nothing will assuage the Palestinians, who are failed before coming a state, nor the Pakistanis, whose failure is ineluctable.

The collapse of what I called the “Pax Obamicana” may be a real catastrophe.

Articles by David P. Goldman

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