America an Unreliable Partner

If there’s one attribute about the United States that makes partnering it risky, it is its unreliability. Washington initiates conflict as suits its momentary interest without caring about the possible ramifications for the countries, including allies, in the vicinity and effect on the prevailing order, which may not be to its liking but manifests stability. It is unscrupulous about the means it uses and, when the situation gets hot and body bags and fatigue take their toll, it thinks nothing about precipitously departing the scene leaving its regional partners holding the can. The absence of grit, stamina, and the will to absorb losses and to stay the course, is America’s major strategic failing that countries expecting the US to bail them out in strategic crises need to ponder.

Consider the recent record. The US intervened controversially in Iraq in 2001 to remove Saddam Hussein leading to a revival of the old Shia-Sunni schism, endless sectarian violence and consolidation of Islamist militancy in the beleaguered country. Thirteen years on, Washington decided to decamp with the “democracy” it has installed in Baghdad showing few signs of enduring. So infirm is its commitment that a few weeks ago it turned down prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s plea for help militarily to oust the militant Sunni group with known connections to the Al-Qaeda occupying the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in the Anbar province.

Elsewhere, after a decade of hard fighting in Afghanistan the Americans, longtime experts in “cut and run” tactics, are allowing a condominium of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban—the latter headed by the enigmatic Mullah Fazlullah operating out of the North Waziristan mountains—to displace in slow stages the legally elected government in Kabul and, simultaneously, to create sustained turmoil and dissension inside Pakistan in a bid to take over an already fragile nuclear armed state—everyone’s worst nightmare. Of course, Washington originally seeded this problem which is turning out to be catastrophic for South Asia. It exploited religion to rile the Afghans into fighting the Soviet Union-supported communist regime in Kabul, armed and motivated the Afghan mujahideen who, post-Russian withdrawal, in their new avatar as the Taliban spawned extremist outfits drawing disgruntled Muslims from everywhere, especially Central Asia and as far away as Chechnya. They are creating havoc in Pakistan and Indian Kashmir, and spurring Sunni radicalism in the Islamic crescent from the Maghreb to Indonesia.

India was recently reminded that its concerns about terrorism emanating from Pakistan, for example, count for little in the American scheme of things. In the Consolidated Appropriations Bill 2014 approved by the US legislature the conditions attached to Pakistan getting the annual multi-billion dollar grant-in-aid broadly requires that Islamabad only ensure that the Afghan Taliban under its control do not harass the retreating US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and that the Pakistan Army don’t usurp power. Moreover, while Washington is anxious that any terrorist threat to America incubating in the proliferating Saudi-funded madrassas within Pakistan be nipped in the bud, it doesn’t much care and is unwilling to throttle the menace before it assumes demonic proportions by pressing Riyadh to halt financial flows to them and by prompting the Islamabad Establishment and Pakistan Army to sever their patronage ties to 65 “Taliban groups” and lashkars active in that country.

Tokyo was likewise presented with more evidence by Washington that while Japan is central to its “rebalancing” in Asia in America’s direct rivalry with China, it would rather sit out any military clash Japan may have with China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It seems to have even bought Beijing’s line that visits by the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine, revered by the Japanese people as the repository of the souls of the dead in past military campaigns, was avoidable provocation. In the event, Tokyo finally appears determined to look out for itself, and is amending its “peace Constitution” to legitimate “collective self-defence”.

It is the wayward and “unreliable America” then that contextualises the discussion between Abe, who’ll be the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations, and his retiring Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, about how best and quickly to operationalise comprehensive military cooperation between the two nations. Collective self-defence is precisely what Singh should fruitfully discuss in detail with Abe and the Indian armed services and the Japanese Self Defence Force ought to begin implementing in earnest. It is preferable to New Delhi and Tokyo, ever mindful of Beijing’s sensitivities, holding back on joint Indo-Japanese military activity to cramp China’s strategic and maritime options in Asia.

India has a more immediate issue at hand vis-a-vis the US. Under pressure from the Manmohan Singh government, the ministry of external affairs is compromising on the strict reciprocity predicate ordinarily dictating equitable interstate relations. Indian ambassador S Jaishankar is concocting a deal with US deputy secretary of state William Burns whereby not only is there no hint of an US apology for the Devyani Khobragade incident, but in exchange for Khobragade and two previous Indian consul-generals in New York who had servant trouble being able to enter America freely in the future without fear of prosecution, the status quo ante favouring the US diplomats stationed in India is restored. They will once again enjoy immunities and privileges—unhindered access and exemption from body searches at airports, income tax-free status for family members working illegally, leniency in import of victuals, etc.—unavailable on a reciprocal basis to Indian diplomats posted in America. This is unacceptable.

New Delhi has buckled under the threat of prosecution of Indian diplomats and accepted the US minimum wage standard. The principle of sanctity of Indian embassies/consulates as sovereign territory and carryings-on within them as sovereign matter has thus been breached, mocking the foundational principle of sound bilateral ties. It will confirm the US view of India as a bully-able country. This will only weaken the frame of the strategic partnership the US is keen to forge with India, and doesn’t bode well for the “rebalancing” in Asia both countries are engaged in.

[Published 24th January 2014 in New Indian Express at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Afghanistan, Asian geopolitics, Central Asia, China, China military, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, guerilla warfare, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Army, Indian Navy, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Japan, Northeast Asia, Pakistan, Pakistan military, South Asia, Strategic Relations with South East Asia & Far East, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Terrorism, United States, US.. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to America an Unreliable Partner

  1. From Brigadier Ajit Nair (Retd) as email:

    As usual, a brilliantly worded article !! Nothing you wrote is new, but to take disparate threads of events as far as 20 years back and to weave it into a rich tapestry of coherent thought is an art that few have mastered as well as you have. And conforming to the ABC of Strategic writing (Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity). Well written indeed.

    It is amazing that the US refuses to learn from past mistakes, whether in Korea, Vietnam or Gulf War I. Bumbling from one strife-torn region to another, withdrawing at just the wrong time, leaving in their wake full-blown crises. Working on a World stage, but pandering to a domestic constituency.

    In fact, the genesis of the Cold War can be traced to the last few months of WW II, when Eisenhower held back Montgomery’s 21st and Bradley’s 12th Army Groups. Ostensibly because they were out-running the Southern forces in Northern Italy, leading Churchill to famously comment “We have won the war, but we have lost the Peace” !! (Did he actually say that? I wonder..because, by the time the Allied Army reached Germany, the Russians had swept through most of Eastern Europe.

  2. Sheshanag says:

    Scenario – Americans pull out of Afghanistan in the near future. What is the strategy to prevent the spread of the Islamic virus ? As of now, Pak acts as a buffer, but wouldn’t that dissolve?Would the idea of a communal riot with N-weapons still be considered a distant reality?

    • You are right about the idea of Pakistan as buffer against the Islamist virus. It is a theme I have been hammering away at for years in my writings with a solution — coopt Pakistan, which is eminently cooptable.

  3. Reaction (emailed and reproduced here) from Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow, Asian Studies Center, Heritage Foundation, Washington, DC:

    I respectfully disagree with many of the assertions in your article. If staying engaged in combat and spending nearly $80 billion in aid over a twelve-year period (Afghanistan) does not constitute grit and stamina, I am not sure what does. And you need to get your facts straight on US legislation. Since 2009, US military aid to Pakistan has been conditioned on Pakistan cracking down on various terrorist groups, including the LeT, which, as you know, is more of a threat to India than the US. I do agree that this US administration has failed to follow through on the conditions by exercising its national security waiver authority, and I would fault it for that. But your piece too strongly and too broadly criticizes America for problems that are simply more complicated and nuanced than you acknowledge. US officials have also been let down by New Delhi on a few occasions yet there is broad agreement that India remains an important partner.

    • The ability of the US to invest militarily and otherwise in distant theaters has never been in question. It has always been the will to stay the course whatever it takes and however long it takes which’s in doubt. And as far as conditions for Pak aid go, you yourself admit that the Obama Admin has “failed to follow through”.

  4. Received (as email & reproduced here) from Stephen P Cohen, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution, Washington, DC:

    India is not an ally and explicitly rejects the label–yet it seems to expect being treated like one. The US side has a very different story about Nannygate; but our allies (e.g. Pakistan) have suffered also! Until India can act independently and coopt its neighbors it will remain the strongest of the weak states.

    • As you know, coopting neighbors with generous economic terms and lifting of military pressure has been a theme I have been mining a very long time and it still holds. You may be right about India expecting to be treated as a treaty-ally when it is not. But I was, in the op/ed, pointing out that even allies haven’t fared well. Moreover, both India and the US may have lots to bitch about each other and still recognize the mutual benefit from a substantive strategic partnership that is in the offing. But it too will suffer from the basic US infirmity I pointed out, namely, the lack of will to see a conflict to a satisfactory end.

      • From Steve Cohen (in email):

        I think I agree with you, what needs to be done is to sit down and look at possible contingencies(a Chinese inspired war in the himalaya,s an Indian push against Pakistan, a Pakistani terror attack, a collapse in Afghanistan) and discuss what the US and Indian response are likely to be, and what they should be, given that the two countries are not allies but nor are they enemies. Nannygate embittered some people here and there, but both sides need to think calmly now about such contingencies. One place to begin would be to look at all the US and Indian decisions to itnervene or to NOT intervene in various crises.

  5. Shaurya says:

    Please ask Mr. Cohen to wait for 6 months.

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