The Cable

Did the U.S. bring India to the table?

Is there any connection between Pakistan’s stunning arrests of top Taliban leaders and last week’s rare meeting between senior Indian and Pakistani diplomats? And did the Obama administration somehow deliver India to the table in exchange for Pakistan’s cooperation? Those were the questions lingering in Washington Friday as a handful of South Asia experts sat ...

RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images
RAVEENDRAN/AFP/Getty Images

Is there any connection between Pakistan’s stunning arrests of top Taliban leaders and last week’s rare meeting between senior Indian and Pakistani diplomats? And did the Obama administration somehow deliver India to the table in exchange for Pakistan’s cooperation?

Those were the questions lingering in Washington Friday as a handful of South Asia experts sat down for lunch with Vice President Joseph Biden. But two India and Pakistan experts who attended the lunch saw no link between the events, though they said it’s in the administration’s interest to act as if they were.

“The story is far more prosaic than it appears,” said Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who wouldn’t comment on the specifics of his conversation with Biden. “I don’t think the administration is sure that there actually is a fundamental change in Pakistani behavior. Only time will tell on that score.”

“For various reasons, the administration is happy to insinuate they had a role, because if nothing else it gives them a little more leverage against Pakistan. But I think they know very clearly that these talks occurred because the Indian prime minister wanted them to happen,” said Tellis. “I don’t think there is anyone in the administration that seriously believes that it is what they did that brought [Indian Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh to the point where he was willing to talk to the Pakistanis.”

The Obama team has been advocating for a renewed India-Pakistan dialogue for many months, and the speculation that U.S. intercession influenced India’s decision also allows Pakistani government to defend its cooperation with the Obama administration to a skeptical domestic audience, Tellis said.

“It’s almost wishful thinking,” Tellis said. “This is one instance where both Pakistani and American interests are satisfied symmetrically by the survival of the story.”

Shuja Nawaz, director of the South Asia Center at The Atlantic Council, agreed that the U.S. role in both the Pakistani decision to change its approach and the Indian decision to resume talks was minimal.

“All of this was really motivated by their own interests … It appears that it was almost an accidental coming together of the objectives of the U.S. and Pakistan,” said Nawaz, who also was in the Friday lunch with Biden and wouldn’t comment on their conversation. “I frankly don’t think there was any deal done; I don’t think there was any strategic shift.”

There are plenty of conspiracy theories out there, mostly in the Pakistani press, claiming that the U.S. made some deal with the Pakistani government in exchange for the recent arrests, but Nawaz was skeptical.

“What did Pakistan get out of this at this point from the U.S.?” asked Nawaz. “I don’t see an awful lot that appears to have emerged.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, D-MA, agreed that while the administration has been active on encouraging the Pakistanis to move against the Afghan Taliban, there was no quid pro quo.

“There’s a lot of U.S. role in terms of the long discussions over what’s in their interest, but we didn’t give them anything,” said Kerry, who was just in Pakistan only two weeks ago.

He also said the United States wasn’t directly involved in pushing for or setting up the India-Pakistan summit.

“We didn’t broker it; we urged both sides that they needed to get it going,” Kerry said. “So it’s been on our agenda but they finally just decided it was in their own interests.”

There is still a laundry list of things the Pakistanis want from the United States, including increased military aid (some of which is coming) and reimbursement of what Pakistan sees as its outlays for operations already completed.

Following the recent visit of Special Representative Richard Holbrooke to Islamabad, the U.S. agreed to reimburse Pakistan some $349 million for military operations covered by the Coalition Support Fund, a congressionally appropriated pool of money designate for that purpose.

But Pakistan estimates its out-of-pocket expenses covered under the fund were $2 billion through 2009, leaving a hefty tab left to be paid. That’s all separate from the $1.5 billion set to go to Pakistan this year under the Kerry-Lugar aid bill.

When the Kerry-Lugar aid money gets disbursed, that will be the next test of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship, Nawaz said, because the ability of the Pakistani government to responsibly handle the money could reduce the need for costly and intrusive American monitors and inspectors. That’s crucial in the trust building between the two governments and the two populations.

“The Obama administration understands that it’s still not a perfect relationship, that there are questions on both sides,” he said. “We also have to understand that public sentiment in both countries appears to mirror each other and that complicates the state-to-state relationship.”

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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