When Prime Minister Narendra Modi meets US President Joe Biden at White House this weekend, both the countries will have shed the monkey called Pakistan off their backs as American direct engagement with Af-Pak region has ended since the erstwhile Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
In the past four decades, the India-US bilateral relationship was bedeviled by American engagement in Afghanistan and the equation remained largely hyphenated till US Navy Seals gunned down Osama bin Laden near Pakistan Army cantonment in Abbottabad in May 2011.
In the interregnum, Washington needed Rawalpindi to first fight off the Soviet Union during the Cold War days and then the Al Qaeda and the Taliban post-9/11 attack. The India-US bilateral relationship was looked at by Washington planners through this prism and hence tactical adjustments were made in favor of Rawalpindi GHQ.
Even after the brutal attacks by Pakistani terrorist groups on Indian Parliament in December 2001 and on the Indian Army camp at Kaluchak in Jammu and Kashmir in May 2002, the message from US President, NSA and Secretary of State to then NDA government was not to wage war against Pakistan as US personnel were stationed in that country for war against terror in Afghanistan. While the US put pressure on then Pakistani dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf to ban the terrorist groups attacking India, New Delhi was told to go easy on Pakistan.
Visiting India nearly a month after the Kaluchak massacre, then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told his Indian counterpart George Fernandes that US relationship with Pakistan was temporary, but they were looking at India as a long-term strategic ally.
It was due to the American commitment in Afghanistan, Pakistan was given a free pass by successive US administrations on nuclear and missile proliferation, terrorism against India and was even rewarded with a major non-NATO ally status in 2003. The powerful US ecosystem in media and think-tanks put pressure on India on Kashmir without asking for equal accountability from terror promoting Islamabad. North Korea was sanctioned for nuclear proliferation but not Pakistan or for that matter China despite detailed evidence available in AQ Khan files with the CIA. The US ecosystem conjured up images of nuclear war to deter India even as Pakistan directly attacked India or used its proxy terror groups. Pakistan got away cheaply in 1999 Kargil War even though rogue Pakistan Army under Musharraf had invaded India from Batalik to Mushkoh Valley in pursuance of their pipe dream to annex Kashmir.
The Pakistani misdemeanors in the past four decades were not only overlooked by the international community but also rewarded with US pumping in latest military hardware and financial aid including using the national security waiver post 9/11. Islamabad got billions of dollars in aid from US and European Union in the name of war against terror despite everyone in White House knowing that Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders were feted by Rawalpindi. Even the F-16 fighters given to Pakistan for use in war against terror in Afghanistan were used against India on February 27, 2019 after PM Modi struck at a terror camp in Balakot for Pulwama terror strike by Pakistan based terror groups. The American efforts were supplemented by the English who still carry imperial legacy on their shoulders and believe that Taliban are just country boys.
All this changed when crown prince of terror Sirajuddin Haqqani with the help of Pakistani ISI ground and technical support in terms of Chinese drone footage and purchased satellite imagery militarily occupied Kabul on August 15, 2021.
Today, the US engagement with Af-Pak region is over or will be limited to over the horizon counter-terrorist operation. Pakistan is a client state of China, which in turn is in strategic competition with the US and to a lesser degree with India. Rag-tag Islamic militia Taliban is in power in Kabul, and it does not recognize the Durand Line with a burning ambition to turn the world into Islamic Caliphate. The India-US relationship for the first time is unfettered by the Pakistan factor, which has always dragged the bilateral relations down, and time for regional structural adjustments are over for the US. The fight against terror has again gone regional with the US and its allies departing from Kabul.
It is under these circumstances and in the presence of two other strategic allies, Japan, and Australia, that India and the US have an opportunity to make a new beginning of the bilateral ties where the two natural allies can mutually grow and prosper across the board. There is an opportunity for the two countries to act as a democratic bulwark against belligerent Communist China for securing the Indo-Pacific as also stabilizing the region through new supply chains and commitment to Climate Change objectives. The ISI chief, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who triumphantly rode into Kabul on September 4, may have his smile wiped off at the end of this month.
Shishir Gupta is Executive Editor of the Hindustan Times.