Obama and Modi Need to Talk About Pakistan

A lot to discuss.

Photographer: PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images

The flourishing of India-U.S. ties on display this week in Washington has something to do with the personal rapport between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi -- and much more to do with their mutual interest in counterbalancing China. The more immediate threat to their common security interests, however, comes from Pakistan.

U.S. officials seem finally to be losing patience with Pakistan’s double-dealing in Afghanistan and its support for key Taliban factions. In recent weeks, the U.S. has sent two unmistakable messages to the Pakistani military brass, killing Taliban leader Mullah Mansour with a drone strike in Pakistan’s previously off-limits Baluchistan province and refusing to subsidize the sale of F-16 fighter jets for the Pakistan Air Force.

The U.S. can’t cut off all support for Pakistan; the repercussions for U.S. and regional security would be severe. But there may be a chance for the U.S. and India to reverse their more accustomed roles, with the former taking up the stick against Pakistan and the latter the carrot.

For the U.S., this isn’t necessarily a radical change in policy. The improvement of U.S.-India relations predates the Obama-Modi relationship. Efforts to improve coordination and intelligence-sharing between the U.S. and Indian militaries can continue, and the U.S. should persist in rallying support for India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group, which governs trade in nuclear-related exports; unlike Pakistan, which is also making a bid to join, India has a strong record on nonproliferation and has strictly adhered to the safeguards negotiated in the civilian nuclear deal finalized with the U.S. in 2008.

Combine all this with continued U.S. support for giving India a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, and Pakistan should be in no doubt about where the U.S. sees its true long-term interests.

Meanwhile, more overt U.S. support should allow India to show some generosity toward its prickly neighbor. This could start with constructive proposals to jump-start trade talks. Instead of crying foul over Chinese infrastructure investment in Pakistan, India could do more to flesh out its own proposals for regional transit and trade networks and seek to coordinate them with China’s.

Admittedly, this is a familiar refrain. But if (as is likely) the Pakistan Army continues to block any rapprochement, at least its intransigence will have been made more clear.

The U.S. could encourage dialogue by working to get Pakistani, Indian, Chinese and Iranian officials to meet with Afghan leaders and hash out a future for the war-torn country in which all its neighbors are invested. And if this whole effort seems difficult and a distraction from the blossoming India-U.S. friendship, both sides should remember that the alternative -- a suspicious and angry Pakistan with an urge to play spoiler -- is far worse.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.