Over the past 14 years India has hosted a US president three times, Pakistan has hosted none. President Donald Trump’s stand-alone visit further hardens the de-hyphenation of India from Pakistan in US foreign policy. The last US President to make a state visit to Pakistan was George W. Bush in early March 2006, a trip that included India. Barack Obama never went there.
From 1959 to 2006, every US presidential South Asian visit included both India and Pakistan.
Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson Aisha Farooqi earlier tried to explain it away, saying Trump “wants an exclusive visit to Pakistan which is not linked to any other visit in the region because Pakistan has its own distinct place.” Prime Minister Imran Khan issued an invitation to Trump last July.
There are multiple reasons why India and Pakistan are no longer joined at the hip as far as presidential visits are concerned.
The first is the much deeper strategic relationship that has developed between India and the US, one that encompasses counterterrorism, China, and global issues such as trade and energy. The Pakistan agenda is only about terrorism.
“De-hyphenation has been a gradual but consistent evolution over the past decade and is partly a product of the growing importance of India in America’s strategic calculus,” said Jeff Smith, South Asia analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank close to the Trump administration.
The most dramatic manifestation of this break was George W. Bush’s civilian nuclear deal with India – a deal Pakistan asked for and did not get. Rick Rossow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said: “Recall that just a few years earlier, President Bill Clinton felt he had to roll back post-nuclear test sanctions placed against India and Pakistan simultaneously.”
The second is Pakistan’s continuing role as a haven for terrorists. Smith says this has led to a“broad sense of frustration with Pakistan that cuts across both parties.”
Indian diplomats say the US is extremely pro-active in the United Nations when it comes to getting terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed’s chief Masood Azhar listed as a terrorist or keeping Pakistan on the terrorism-related financial action task force’s grey list.
The third is complicated. Trump’s offers to mediate on Kashmir worry India and enthuse Pakistan. Sources in Washington say this is motivated by Trump’s dream of winning a Nobel Peace Prize.
He has offered to mediate everywhere, they note, including Northern Ireland. But Trump’s rhetoric about wanting to mediate even while talking about improving relations with India “does not help the cause of de-hyphenation,” admitted Stephen Tankel, who teaches at American University and is a terror expert.
Islamabad believes facilitating a US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will one day mean a visit by Air Force One.
“The road to Afghanistan’s stability goes through Rawalpindi. So the US has an interest in maintaining some level of connection with Pakistan. But it will be a more utilitarian approach over time,” said Rossow. Smith was sceptical, arguing, “Trump’s desire to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is genuine but he views no deal with the Taliban as preferable to a bad deal.”
Four, there is almost zero US interest in Pakistan as an economic partner. Bilateral trade was $ 6.6 billion in 2018, versus $ 150 billion with India.
US investment in Pakistan is a minuscule $ 386 million, less than what the US puts into a medium-sized Indian state. The overwhelming Chinese economic footprint is a further negative.
“I find it hard to envision any scenario in which a policy of re-hyphenation returns,” said Smith. “Even if the president were so inclined, which he is not, there would be substantial, potentially insurmountable, resistance from Congress and the Washington strategic community.”
In a January press briefing, Farooqi declined to give a time frame for a US presidential visit to Pakistan.
She claimed it could take place later this year and the “two sides are working on it.” US diplomats said they doubted such talks were taking place with the US presidential elections looming.