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Mon. January 30, 2023
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McCain Visit to Pakistan, India Reflects Wisdom of Decoupling
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The recent visit of Senator John McCain to South Asia is highly reflective of the state of U.S. policy on the subcontinent. This should come as no surprise since Sen. McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, is a foreign affairs heavyweight in the Senate, sitting on the Intelligence, Armed Forces, and Homeland Security Committees. In broad terms, the trip demonstrates the continuation of decoupling American relations with Pakistan and India. This strategy, largely begun under the Bush Administration, recognizes that while the two nuclear-armed neighbors harbor deep resentments towards each other, both are important assets to the United States. Additionally, it recognizes that each nation poses distinct challenges and opportunities that are better dealt with on a bilateral basis than through trilateral or regional diplomacy. For instance, while Pakistan is an invaluable, although at times petulant ally in the Afghan war, US-India relations are centered on commercial ties and the 2008 civilian nuclear agreement. The Obama Administration has also tacitly endorsed decoupling by removing India from the portfolio of Af-Pak special advisor Richard Holbrooke. Sen. McCain’s frosty visit to Islamabad typified the current state of affairs in U.S.-Pakistan relations. The scolding he gave to the Pakistani Prim Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani was yet another in a recent string of diplomatic disputes. The issue du jore concerns “no objection certificates,” which restrict the movement of American diplomats throughout the country. The government has recently begun to harass U.S. officials, even restricting the travel of Ambassador Cameron Munter. The U.S. has threatened to retaliate against Pakistani diplomats in turn, a move fully sanctioned under international law. Sen. McCain was assured by Gilani that he would consider removing such conditions. However, this row is merely the latest in a string of tensions that include the killing of two Pakistanis by Raymond Davis, a CIA contractor, the furor caused by the Osama bin Laden raid, and the identification of two CIA station chiefs at the behest of the ISI. When discussing more important and long-term American concerns Sen. McCain turned to Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani. The two were reported to have discussed widening the Pakistani counterinsurgency campaign to North Waziristan and the opening of a consulate in Balochistan province. Though Gen. Kayani deferred on both points, it is telling that U.S. officials continue to turn to the military on truly important issues, despite the presence of a civilian government. Beyond this, Sen. McCain’s visit reflects continued impatience with petty Pakistani diplomacy and irritation with the government’s reluctance to prosecute terrorist groups on its soil. Sen. McCain’s stop in India was markedly brighter. The highlight of the visit was a stop in Srinagar, the summertime capital of Jammu and Kashmir, the Indian-controlled portion of the disputed province. Accompanied by Ambassador Timothy Roemer, Sen. McCain was the most important American official to visit Indian Kashmir in over twenty years. While there, the delegation met with the provincial governor and chief minister. Discussions also took place with top military officials and topics covered were rumored to include border security, terrorism, and economic conditions in the region. Perhaps more importantly, Sen. McCain declined to meet with separatist leaders, groups that have at times been supported by the Pakistani military. While McCain’s visit to the Subcontinent will surely appear to Pakistani commentators as further proof of an American tilt towards India, it in reality reflects the wisdom of decoupling. While India and Pakistan will always be intertwined, their relations with the U.S. are neither complimentary nor contradictory. This requires differentiated diplomatic efforts. Pakistan will continue to be a valuable, if reluctant, partner in the war in Afghanistan and broader efforts to combat terrorism. They will often need to be threatened or coerced into action, as demonstrated by Sen. McCain’s discussions with both civilian and military authorities. India, meanwhile, is becoming an important partner in the arenas of commerce, nuclear energy, and counterterrorism cooperation. While compartmentalizing bilateral relations with each of the South Asian neighbors is wise, American diplomats must take care to toe a fine line as well. Cooperation with India must be impartial both in appearance and in practice in order to avoid alienating Pakistan. While this is certainly a tall order, foreign policy often calls for finesse over force. Mickey Kupecz is an MA Candidate in International Security at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies, where he is a Sié Fellow. His studies are focused on South Asia.

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