13/02/2016 12:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Why The US Should Dash The Idea Of Re-Hyphenating India And Pakistan

Pakistan India Puzzle Concept
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Pakistan India Puzzle Concept

An aspiring superpower's ego stood somewhat hurt when India woke up to the news of the possible return of the hyphen between India and Pakistan vis-a-vis the two countries' relations with the US, earlier this month. National Security Adviser, Shiv Shankar Menon, clearly expressed his reservations, saying, "It looks like a re-hyphenation of the India-Pakistan equation that is not in our interest..."

So, what exactly does re-hyphenation mean? What it implies is putting India and Pakistan in the same basket vis-à-vis Washington's relations with both these countries. If such a decision were to go through, the possibility would amount to the re-merger of the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (SRAP) with the Bureau of South and Central Asia (SCA) that handles India. Such a decision would significantly enhance the prospects of Washington's meddling in India-Pakistan relations, given the likely increase in the same diplomats and officials frequenting Islamabad and New Delhi, and officiated from a common State Department regional node. The present state of de-hyphenated India-Pakistan relations allows for a bilateral resolution of the mutual problems between the countries without any mediation by a third party.

Re-hyphenation implies putting India and Pakistan in the same basket vis-à-vis Washington's relations with both these countries.

There are two theories explaining the potential return of the hyphen. First, the dilution of the SRAP by an all-encompassing SCA found consonance with the irrelevance that SRAP represents in the aftermath of international troop pullout from Afghanistan, and, second, a lame duck President scrambling to leave a legacy in his Asia policy for the next administration in Washington.

Arguments against the likelihood of re-hyphenation, on the other hand, are premised on the argument that Washington has come a long way from the Cold War days when it viewed its relationship with India and Pakistan through the same lens as a zero-sum game. Today, indeed, the US-India relationship is in a different league altogether. By separating its relations with both New Delhi and Islamabad from each other, Washington has stood to gain a lot since 2008, as have the two countries in question.

Thus, it is not surprising that the US officials soon confirmed that there would be no merging of the India and Pakistan desks at the State Department.

The SRAP desk was created in 2009 soon after the Obama Administration took over, with a view to focussing on the Afghan problem and the spokes that connected it to the state of Pakistan. Washington views India's understanding of de-hyphenation as skewed. While India has traditionally viewed de-hyphenation as being linked to the 2009 decision to create SRAP to deal with Afghanistan-Pakistan effectively, some in Washington have objected to any understanding of de-hyphenation based on institutional linkages, stressing that it has viewed India and Pakistan through different prisms much before the formation of the SRAP. For instance, Alyssa Ayres, former assistant deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asian Affairs, traces the 2005 nuclear deal between India and the US as the hallmark agreement that ended all possibilities of any further hyphenation in the US's relations with India and Pakistan.

By separating its relations with both New Delhi and Islamabad from each other, Washington has stood to gain a lot since 2008, as have the two countries in question.

However, such assessments are almost entirely eclipsed by doubt on the back of recent reports that the US might be considering signing a similar nuclear deal with Pakistan. Arguments about better and more efficient management of the region under one principal head of the regional bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in the State Department also fail to convince in the face of the continuing Afghan conundrum and a growing desire in Washington to tighten screws on Pakistan to compel it to act more effectively against terrorism. A separate watchman in the State Department in such circumstances is likely to deliver more promisingly than a joint India-Pakistan desk. Moreover, the US would like to continue building on the gains made through the current de-hyphenated model of its relationship with both India and Pakistan.

A re-hyphenated India-Pakistan relationship in the US's scheme of things is not desirable for India because it is likely to affect India's Afghanistan policy. India's Afghanistan policy could be tweaked to support some of the US's own policies in the region. Already, there is a growing appreciation of India's steps in Afghanistan by the US. Recently, the US hailed India's donation of three helicopters to Afghanistan. A hyphenation of the SRAP and the SCA could also fill the growing gap that has come about by dwindling US footprints in Afghanistan and arguments that go on to suggest that Afghanistan might well be turning to India.

Conjectures aside, the larger picture still seems to coincide with former US ambassador Teresita C Schaffer's assertion, "US policy is still 'de-hyphenation' -- trying to manage the important and very different relationships with India and Pakistan without making one dependent on the other."

It remains to be seen if the status quo apropos de-hyphenated relations between India and Pakistan continues with the next President of the United States.

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