India, Pakistan, and the United States: The Zero-Sum Game

George Perkovich
Director, Secure World Program
W. Alton Jones Foundation

World Policy, Volume XIII, Number 2, Summer 1996
Published by the World Policy Institute
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There is a scene in Woody Allen's 1970s classic, Annie Hall, where in a split screen we see the Woody Allen character and the Diane Keaton character independently talking to their therapists. His therapist asks, "How often do you sleep together?" Allen replies, "Hardly ever, maybe three times a week." Keaton's therapist asks "Do you have sex often?" She answers, "Constantly, I'd say three times a week." I recalled this scene on a long flight home from India and Pakistan, where I had been discussing nuclear weapons related issues with a range of current and former officials, defense analysts, and others. The perceptions of the Indians and Pakistanis I met were as divergent as those of the Allen and Keaton characters, leaving aside the different subject matters.

What made the cinematic metaphor somehow more suggestive was the appearance of the therapist. In some ways, the United States has become the diplomatic equivalent of a therapist for both India and Pakistan, albeit a befuddled, ill-equipped, and overinvolved one who has become part of the problem. On another level, India and Pakistan, born of the same mother India in 1947 and separated at birth, cannot normalize their relationship without the political equivalent of therapy, whatever its source.

The conflict between India and Pakistan begins in the depths of each nation's identity and surfaces in many ways, the question of Kashmir being the most volatile. Simplifying an extremely complex problem, India and Pakistan each control part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, and each has sought, maximally, to have recognized authority over it. The dispute centers on the Kashmir Valley, where a Muslim-majority population living under corrupt and heavy-handed Indian control became militant in 1989 and began receiving significant arms and other assistance from Pakistan.

India argues that relinquishing authority over the Kashmir Valley would betray the secular essence of Indian democracy by suggesting that a Muslim majority state cannot find political satisfaction in India and establish a destabilizing precedent for secession movements in other parts of the country. On the other hand, Pakistan's original raison d'Ítre was as a home for the Muslims of what had been British India: if a Muslim-majority state remains within India, doubts about the historical necessity of Pakistan arise (begging the questions raised by the more than 100 million non-Kashmiri Muslims in India and the creation in 1972 of Bangladesh, another Muslim-populated state in what was formerly British India). Stripped of its historical and diplomatic complexity, the Kashmir issue elicits concern because Indian and Pakistani forces routinely exchange military fire across the line of control, and the temptation exists for one side or the other to gamble on finally resolving the dispute through force.

Zero-Sum Thinking
This leads to a second major worry: India and Pakistan each have growing capabilities for assembling and deploying nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which could make the next major conflict between them the first nuclear war in history. Under the umbrella of their nuclear and missile capabilities, the intelligence services of both countries support violent sectarian groups (essentially terrorists) in each other's territory. When bombs go off in Bombay, Indians blame Pakistan. When Karachi flows with blood, Pakistanis blame India.

Such mutual recriminations over the causes of violence and disorder are both plausible and irresponsibly self-exculpatory. However, whatever the motivations and causes of violence within each nation, the flow of small arms and drugs running largely from Afghanistan through Pakistan and into India helps fuel it. With such strained relations, people-to-people exchanges between India and Pakistan are rare and the economic benefits of trade largely self-denied. In short, these two nations are as conflicted as any pair on earth, despite, or perhaps because of, their many commonalities.

Perhaps nowhere is the conflict between Indians and Pakistanis deeper than in their perceptions. Indians and Pakistanis perceive themselves, each other, and the phenomena around them so divergently that they have become world leaders in zero-sum thinking. Viewing themselves as innocent and frequently the victims of others' ill-deeds, they see no basis for accommodating each other so that both will benefit.

Pakistanis see the United States as being on the verge of embracing India in a new strategic friendship, seduced by the huge potential Indian market and the desire to contain China through encircling relationships with Japan, the states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and India. Worried about India's appeal to Washington, a Pakistani official challenges a visiting American: "You should make up your minds and choose us as your strategic partner and balance India." When I demur that the aim is to have sound relations with both India and Pakistan and to foster cooperation between them, I am told this is impossible folly.

I suggest that American officials want better relations with Pakistan but are wary of getting too entwined, given the rampant corruption and internecine political conflict, the place of drug and gun running in the political economy, and the bloody anarchy of Karachi. The official waves his hand dismissively. "Corruption happens in all Third World countries until there is more development. Besides, you are not troubled by corruption elsewhere. The United States has had close relations with a number of very corrupt governments, including dictators. So why is this a special problem with Pakistan now?" A week later in New Delhi, I encounter the opposite line: Indians tell me that the United States has renewed its "tilt" toward Pakistan at India's expense. "In your obsessive fear of Islam and Iran," a typical argument begins, "you are falling for Pakistan's pretensions as a moderate Islamic democracy. You cater to them as a frontline state once again, and this will badly limit the relationship between the United States and India. In their hearts of hearts, they want to destroy us." I suggest that both India and Pakistan would be better off taking small steps now to demonstrate their recognition that neither of them will achieve their developmental aspirations and security if they do not reverse the downward spiral of their relationship.

For example, selectively opening trade with each other could build confidence for taking subsequent steps to defuse the Kashmir violence and control the nuclear and missile competition. I suggest that India should be willing to take such steps--unless it believes Pakistan can be made to implode and that this would somehow benefit India. This is in part a provocation: I have not met a thinking Indian who wishes to see further chaos in Pakistan.

At the same time, few Indians agree that their country can or should do much more to promote rapprochement than reform the corrupt and recently brutal Indian government of Kashmir. They believe that the United States should take India's side and stop indulging the Pakistanis.

Of course, zero-sum thinking can be an accurate reflection of reality. Conceivably, anything that benefits Pakistan could harm India in equal measure; the opposite could equally be true. The United States could be trying to improve its relationship with Pakistan at India's expense, or vice versa. But is it possible to separate reality from misperception if there is no effort or means to undertake an "objective" assessment? Such an effort requires dialogue and, probably, mediation. Hence the appeal of the therapeutic metaphor. Unfortunately, India and Pakistan have not had a formal prime ministerial dialogue in eight years.

In the area of nuclear policy, the dialogue and reality-checking problem is worsened by the fact that the assumptive "therapist," the United States, is a major actor and has become part of the zero-sum dynamic. Two episodes reveal the problem.

Plots and Conspiracies
On December 15, 1995, the New York Times reported on page one that U.S. spy satellites had detected possible Indian preparations for a nuclear explosive test in the Rajasthan Desert, the site of India's only previous nuclear test, in 1974. Coming as international negotiators were struggling in Geneva to complete a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the report prompted grave concern around the world. The reactions in India and Pakistan were most important and telling.

The Indian press erupted with articles portraying the Times story and a Washington Post follow-up as "inspired `leaks' " intended to "hustle India into signing on the dotted line of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, thereby foreclosing India's nuclear option while at the same time perpetuating the nuclear apartheid regime." 1 The major Indian daily, The Hindu, titled its December 17 story on the matter "Ploy to Pressure India on CTBT." The leading opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) deemed the report a "ploy" to "coerce" India into signing the CTBT, while the party's foremost defense expert, Jaswant Singh, declared that "India is not a colony to be bent or threatened into submission." 2 Although Indian government officials at first dismissed the Times report as "speculative" and later denied that India was planning a test, the story took on a life of its own as a conspiracy by the United States against India. (In fact, the U.S. government was upset by the story precisely because it could impede the test ban negotiations. The Times reporter, Tim Weiner, had been tipped off not by a government source but by an NGO analyst. In a subsequent conversation with the author, Weiner said that no Indian journalist or official ever contacted him to inquire about the story's origin.)

In Pakistan, the Times story was seen in an entirely different, if no less conspiratorial light. Meeting with current and former officials in early January, I was told that the story actually reflected a plot by India. In this view, India intended its activities in the desert to be detected, knowing that this would alarm the United States and push Washington into making deals to persuade India not to conduct a nuclear test. With the test as a bargaining chip, India would seek U.S. support for a permanent Indian seat on the U.N. Security Council, access to high technology heretofore blocked on nonproliferation grounds, and assistance in conducting nuclear test simulations with computers.

The dueling interpretations of U.S. media reports of India's preparations for a potential nuclear test, and Pakistan's likely response, have distracted Indians and Pakistanis, until very recently, from a serious examination of how their security and political-economic development would be affected by nuclear tests, and what steps could be taken to head off an escalating nuclear and missile competition that both sides believe would ensue.

Putting Pakistan First?
The second major nuclear issue embroiling India, Pakistan, and the United States is the Brown Amendment, a congressional initiative backed by the Clinton administration to lift sanctions imposed on Pakistan since 1990 under the Pressler Amendment. The Pressler Amendment was passed in 1985 to address U.S. concerns over Pakistan's nuclear weapons program at a time when the United States was also determined to continue supplying major aid to Pakistan in order to put pressure on the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It required sanctions to be put into place if and when the president could no longer certify that Pakistan did not possess a nuclear explosive device. Such certification became impossible in 1990, when Pakistan reportedly assembled such a device, and sanctions were imposed that October.

By 1995, the Clinton administration and Sen. Hank Brown (R-CO) had concluded that the sanctions were undermining U.S. relations with Pakistan, without providing major nonproliferation benefits, and should therefore be lifted. Hence, the Brown Amendment was proposed and eventually passed by Congress in October 1995. It provided for the resumption of economic aid to Pakistan and allowed a one-time exemption to permit transfer of $368 million worth of military equipment and spare parts that Pakistan had purchased in 1989 but had never received. (However, the Brown Amendment did not permit the release of 28 F-16 aircraft, the most valuable element of the original arms supply package.)

During the lengthy process of debating and ultimately passing the Brown Amendment, Indian opposition to it mounted. More than the particulars of the military equipment that would flow to Pakistan, what upset India, in the words of Indian strategic analyst Raja Mohan, is the perception that "the Brown Amendment signifies the beginning of a new strategic partnership between Washington and Islamabad. The Clinton administration has now declared Pakistan a frontline state in the containment of Iran and other radical Islamic forces." 3 Indians rightly point out that Pakistan has twice before used U.S.-supplied arms against India, in 1965 and in 1971. In addition, Indian commentators see the Brown Amendment as legitimizing Pakistan's nuclear weapons program, proving the hypocrisy of American nonproliferation policy. 4

For their part, Pakistani officials and commentators were not as euphoric as one would expect, given the Indian interpretation of the Brown Amendment's meaning. While welcoming the U.S. admission of the Pressler Amendment's flaws and the indication that Washington wanted to improve relations, Pakistanis pointed out that the United States was still withholding the 28 F-16 fighter aircraft for which Pakistan had paid $658 million. In addition, the Brown Amendment did little to dispel the feeling that the United States is determined to place India ahead of Pakistan in strategic priorities--just the opposite of the Indian view.

One Pakistani official I met in January went so far as to suggest that the Brown Amendment was really an American ploy to relieve nonproliferation pressure on Israel. By this logic, Israel was being pressed hard by the Arab states prior to the extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty last spring to end its nuclear weapons program, and the United States was put in an awkward position by its exemption of Israel from the heavy nonproliferation pressure Washington was putting on all other states. Thus, if the United States loosened the squeeze on Pakistan, it would make its policy toward Israel less exceptional and thereby reduce international focus on Israel. While this is certainly a minority view, and may fall into the category of devil's advocacy, it reflects the infinite perceptual possibilities in the region.

India's Hard Choices
Behind this perceptual kaleidoscope lie vital interests. The test ban does confront India with a fundamental problem. India's lone nuclear explosive test in 1974 was inadequate to induce confidence that the country can produce and deploy nuclear weapons sufficient to match China's more sophisticated nuclear arsenal. If Indian security requires nuclear weapons--a major if--the "target" is more China than Pakistan, although these two adversaries are related inasmuch as China has reportedly supplied Pakistan with a nuclear weapon design and M-11 ballistic missiles and has continued to assist several facets of Pakistan's nuclear program. Still, India has adequate nonnuclear military strength to deal with Pakistan. To build and deploy an arsenal that would invulnerably threaten China, India would have to conduct an extensive series of nuclear tests and undertake a major weapons and missile development and production program.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would severely impede this option. If India were to sign the treaty, it would only be able to conduct such tests by invoking extreme national interest as justification for subsequently withdrawing from the test ban regime. (Such a step could actually prove advantageous to India, as it would alarm the United States and other major powers and motivate them to intercede to help resolve the threats that warranted the Indian withdrawal.)

If India does not sign the treaty, the larger international norm against testing would subject India to intense pressure and recrimination were New Delhi to conduct tests. Hence, Indian passions over the test ban reflect the hard choices facing the nation. While a test ban, with Pakistani and Indian adherence, would greatly reduce the possibility of a destabilizing nuclear competition in the subcontinent, it could also lead to the withering of India's prestigious and popular nuclear weapons program. Unfortunately, rather than conduct a serious, analytic debate over this set of issues, the Indian polity, with some exceptions, has focused on the sideshow issues of U.S. "leaks" and nuclear colonialism.

Aside from the technological question of what kind of nuclear option India can retain in a no-test regime, the test ban poses a stark perceptual antagonism between India and the United States, which plays heavily in Indian politics. India has advocated a comprehensive test ban since 1954. Today, as negotiations near completion, India leads the charge against the proposed treaty. India argues that the United States and other nuclear weapons states have reduced the test ban treaty from a nuclear disarmament measure to a nonproliferation measure. A disarmament test ban would commit all states not to develop new types of nuclear weapons and sophisticated test-simulation technologies. The current nonproliferation treaty allows nuclear-armed states to improve their nuclear weapons while blocking the nuclear options of less technologically advanced states, such as India. Thus, it is seen as the kind of discriminatory nonproliferation measure that India has historically rejected.

Refusing to rule out further development of nuclear weapons, the United States insists that the proposed draft is the best practical step toward their eventual elimination and that India is hypocritically turning the unfeasible perfect into the enemy of the achievable good. Both sides make valid points. Neither trusts the intentions of the other enough to seek compromise.

Similarly, the Brown Amendment raises fundamental questions about Pakistan's character and role as a moderate Islamic democracy, and about the relationship the United States can and should pursue with Pakistan. Can Pakistan reform its dysfunctional, teetering political system and become a significant positive player in South and Southwest Asia? Can the United States foster Pakistan's positive evolution and at the same time maintain India's confidence as a political, economic, and strategic friend? The Brown Amendment makes sense only if the answer to both questions is yes.

Neither the United States nor Pakistan has made a convincing case that this is in fact a valid answer; in fact, both governments prefer not even to ask these fundamental questions. Perhaps this is because Benazir Bhutto's government, like most before it, has done little to reform the corrupt, feudalistic nature of Pakistani politics. The United States, moreover, has been so obsessed with seeing Pakistan as a frontline state, first against Soviet communism and now against Iranian fundamentalism, that Washington downplays the basic flaws in the Pakistani polity.

Without major political and economic reforms and development, Pakistan will remain extremely unstable. This in turn makes Pakistan fertile ground for Islamic reactionaries. And without a more orderly and cooperative Pakistan, India will continue to view American assistance to Islamabad as counterproductive, if not hostile.

However, by perceiving the Brown Amendment only as a threat to India, Indians miss the opportunity to consider what sort of Pakistan is in India's long-term interest, and whether the United States can help promote the development of such a Pakistan. India may not accept Washington's offer to act as mediator as being in good faith, citing, among other things, the assistant secretary of state for South Asia's four trips to the region without visiting India. Yet, as the region's greatest power, India must take the lead in offering proposals that could become the basis for mediated discussions with Pakistan.

The American Paradox
In the test ban and Brown Amendment episodes, as well as other instances, the United States figures prominently. The Indians and Pakistanis see America variously as a hypocritical bully, a colonial power, an uncertain friend, an antagonist, a hoped-for ally, an investor, a protector, and more. Reducing these images to a simple, black-and-white view, a paradoxical perception of America emerges.

On the one hand, neither India nor Pakistan wants the United States to be powerful and therefore important to it. For profound cultural, historical, and political reasons, these recently liberated developing countries would rather not need a close relationship with the United States. They resist U.S. calls for constraints on their weapons programs and Washington's pressures to improve respect for human rights and trade and intellectual property rights. This resistance, which reflects indigenous interests and pressures, renders America largely impotent to effect major changes in Pakistan or India. Most starkly, since at least 1974, U.S. efforts to "roll back" both countries' nuclear programs, and more recently to "cap" them, have failed. This nonproliferation policy has slowed each country's efforts but not stopped them. This, in turn, has greatly frustrated American officials, who feel paralyzed in the subcontinent.

On the other hand, rather than revel in Washington's episodic weakness, Indians and Pakistanis frequently perceive the United States as an omnipotent force. Often this perception is begrudging and resentful--America as dictator. But more often than one would expect, Indians and Pakistanis seem to wish to believe in American omnipotence and desire the United States to exercise its power.

This urge arises ineluctably in the context of the zero-sum game. Thus, Pakistani interlocutors tell an American visitor that "you could shut down the Indian nuclear program and stop them from developing missiles if you really wanted to." Indians argue that the United States could stop the Pakistani nuclear program if Washington were willing to be tough. Never mind that these same people fervently and often successfully resist U.S. pressures on their own countries; they wishfully welcome omnipotence in their behalf against their adversary.

Ultimately, diplomatic progress and conflict resolution would seem to require common perceptions of the problem and the roles of each party in it, and constructive mediation. Such common perceptions generally do not exist in India and Pakistan. As part of "the problem," the United States has been unable to help bring the two antagonists to the table. They continue to show up on a split screen, giving the audience no hint that resolution is possible.

In Annie Hall, the two characters amicably go their separate ways. In South Asia, the pair are already separated but do not have the cinematic luxury of moving on. Until they can agree on something--perhaps to join a ban on nuclear testing--it is difficult to see anything more than sorrow and pity to come.

1 "Testing Time for India?" The Pioneer, December 21, 1995.[Return]
2 Agence France Presse, report from New Delhi, December 17, 1995, FBIS, December 18, 1995, pp. 77 78.[Return]
3 The Hindu, October 30, 1995.[Return]
4 "The U.S. has become blind again to Pakistan's nuclear programme," editorialized the Indian Express, December 6, 1995.[Return]

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