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India in Transition

Obama in India: Pakistan on the Mind

Bruce Riedel
October 25, 2010

Barack Hussein Obama is about to become the sixth American president to visit India and the third in a row. He is going in the first half of his first term; only Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon did so before him. Presidential visits are carefully planned and scripted, but events invariably have a way of intruding onto the agenda and the stage. This Presidential visit takes place against the backdrop of America’s longest war ever in Afghanistan and a natural disaster in neighboring Pakistan where Obama has invested a huge effort in trying to stabilize a deeply wounded state. The Afghan war and the future of Pakistan will dominate the behind the scenes discussions in New Delhi.

To offer some perspective, Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to go to South Asia. He went in the twilight of his second term, in 1959, and traveled to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Eisenhower had arranged Pakistan’s two treaty alliances with the west, CENTO and SEATO, and had negotiated the secret U2 base in Peshawar that spied on the Soviet Union with Pakistan’s first military dictator, Ayub Khan. However, he was also eager to work with Jawaharlal Nehru who visited him at the family farm in Gettysburg. Therefore, Eisenhower used his four day visit to India to balance his administrations close ties to Khan.

Richard Nixon spent less than a day in India in 1969. He was perhaps the most pro-Pakistan president in American history, detested Indira Gandhi, and tilted famously toward Pakistan in 1971.

Almost a decade passed before Carter went in 1978. He unknowingly spoke some impolitic comments into a live microphone, which became the main memory of the three day trip. He then flew over Pakistan without a stop to protest General Zia’s execution of Zulfikar Bhutto, and was the last American president to visit Iran. A drought of twenty-five years followed before the next American visit.

Bill Clinton was eager to build a new strategic partnership with India but was frustrated by India’s frequent government changes and its 1998 nuclear tests. The Kargil War in 1999 was the turning point; for the first time, America came out explicitly supporting India in a conflict with Pakistan. Clinton’s five days in India in 2000 was a celebration of the new U.S.-India partnership and his five hours in Pakistan were a signal of the deep malaise in that relationship.

George W. Bush was able to develop strong ties to both New Delhi and Islamabad by giving India the breakthrough civilian nuclear power deal and by backing General Musharraf unquestioningly. His three days in India and an overnight in Pakistan symbolized the balance act. The nuclear deal graduated India into the nuclear club, removing the biggest irritant in the bilateral relationship.

Obama does not have a “deliverable” – as they are called in the White House – along the size and magnitude of the nuclear deal. There will be agreements on security and economic cooperation, perhaps a large arms sale for C17 transports, and renewed commitment to close cooperation on global issues like fighting terrorism and addressing climate change.

It will be Pakistan, however, that dominates the private conversations between the president, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi because it is the future of Pakistan that is the most uncertain question in South Asia today. Pakistan has become the most dangerous country in the world for everyone but especially for America and India. It is the epicenter of the global jihadist movement that attacked New York in 2001 and Mumbai in 2008. Its weak civilian government may have good intentions, but seems powerless to address the country’s multiple crises. The army remains the patron of parts of the jihadist Frankenstein even as it fights other parts of the monster. If this were not enough, Pakistan is also the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world.

The floods this summer graphically demonstrated the problems Pakistan faces: weak governance, poor infrastructure, and a thriving Islamist extremist movement. The weak government next door in Afghanistan only makes the challenges harder. The Taliban cancer now dominates both sides of the Durand line. The Pakistani army is at war with those on the south side even as it assists those on the north.

Obama’s visit will also take place against the backdrop of the revival of the Kashmiri question. Pakistan will surely move to capitalize on the unrest. The intifada that exploded this summer in Kashmir can not be ignored by the President during the visit but any comments on it will be potentially explosive.

Obama and Singh need to cooperate to help Pakistan solve its jihadist nightmare. It cannot be resolved by outsiders, nor can it be contained and isolated from the outside. Senior Indian officials in private say that Washington and New Delhi now share a common diagnosis of the problems, but neither has developed a strategy that promises success. It is an increasingly urgent concern, but one that does not have any magical answers. Both agree that engagement with Pakistan is the only way forward, but neither feels satisfied that its engagement is working.

The third parties also involved, particularly Pakistan’s ally China, will also figure extensively in the private talks. Obama is keen to find ways to use regional diplomacy to strengthen Pakistan, and Beijing must be a player in that process.

By all accounts, Obama and Singh have developed a good working relationship. They will have to brain-storm together about how they can collaborate to rescue the sick man of South Asia.

Bruce Riedel is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a member of CASI’s International Advisory Board. He organized President Clinton’s visit to India in 2000.He can be reached at

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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