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For most of the 62 years that India and Pakistan have been independent countries, the United States viewed them as problem children. They were seen as intent on battling each other over the Kashmir issue, unwilling to budge from their emotionally charged and fiercely held positions. This narrow view caused the U.S. to view India and Pakistan as two sides of the same South Asia coin.

That was largely the case until the late 1990s. Over the past 10 years—and especially since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and suburban Washington—the United States has increasingly come to regard the two countries through different lenses.

Given India’s market reforms, economic growth, relatively peaceful political character, and status as a prime target of radical Islamic terrorists, the U.S. has come to see India as a growing power, one to be respected and engaged with diplomatically and economically, and as a fellow victim of terrorism.

Not so with Pakistan. Its reputation as a problem child has grown steadily because of its weak record of civilian leadership, frequent bouts of military rule, and ever-present internal tensions, which have nearly exploded since 9/11 and now threaten to topple the civilian government led by Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari.

It is well known that Pakistan became perhaps America’s most important ally in the pursuit of al-Qaeda in the post-9/11 era. President George W. Bush’s policy was to unquestioningly give Pakistan generous military aid and some humanitarian assistance, then step back to wait for Gen. Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan’s president, to clean up his country’s mess and hunt terrorists in his own country.

But things have grown so serious in Pakistan since Musharraf’s departure that Washington has adopted a new line of thinking, one that entails greater American involvement in the military and economic affairs of a country where al-Qaeda attacks against the government have become a weekly occurrence.

India, on the other hand, seems almost an afterthought for the Obama administration at the moment. That may not be such a bad thing, because it signifies that the Americans view India as a partner capable of handling its own affairs with little outside assistance.

But back to Pakistan. Never was America’s new approach to that country more evident than on March 27, when President Obama announced a new strategy for Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, linking them together because of the al-Qaeda threat common to both. For the first time, an American president explicitly “de-linked” India and Pakistan when talking about the region as a whole.

Now that the U.S. is no longer fixated on Iraq, Obama pledged to sharpen his administration’s focus on Pakistan, fashion a better relationship with its government and military, and pledged to help the Pakistanis weed out terrorists operating in the immensely rugged and difficult-to-penetrate Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Obama explained why the new policy is critical to U.S. security: “Al-Qaeda and its allies—the terrorists who planned and supported the 9/11 attacks—are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al-Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe haven in Pakistan.”

He went on to explain why the futures of both countries are “inextricably linked” this way: “In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier. This almost certainly includes al-Qaeda’s leadership: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. They have used this mountainous terrain as a safe haven to hide, to train terrorists, to communicate with followers, to plot attacks, and to send fighters to support the insurgency in Afghanistan. For the American people, this border region has become the most dangerous place in the world.”

This active pursuit of al-Qaeda in Pakistan to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” the terrorist network isn’t new. Bush had the same goal. But he was distracted by Iraq and failed to follow through with his pledge to help the Pakistanis combat the growing al-Qaeda menace within their own borders.

Three glaring differences emerge between the Bush and Obama policies toward Pakistan:

• Obama is following through on campaign promises to make Afghanistan and Pakistan the collective center of America’s anti-terrorism campaign—not Iraq.

• Obama supports a developmental aid package of $7.5 billion over the next five years, a plan put forth by Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senator Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who serves as the ranking member of that panel. Bush provided mainly military aid—which Obama also supports, but not exclusively—and gave developmental aid secondary status, though the Pakistanis vigorously lobbied for more of the latter.

• Obama is unwilling to provide aid with no conditions attached, as was the case during the Bush era.

Obama considers developmental aid as a key component of the anti-terrorism campaign. During his speech at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, which is next to the White House, Obama explicitly highlighted the importance of such aid as a weapon. “A campaign against extremism will not succeed with bullets or bombs alone,” he said. “Al-Qaeda offers the people of Pakistan nothing but destruction. We stand for something different.”

In addition to urging Congress to pass the Kerry-Lugar bill, which is aimed at helping the Pakistanis build schools, roads, and hospitals and strengthen domestic democratic institutions, the president spoke in favor of another bipartisan measure that would create “opportunity zones” to develop the economy in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The authors of that measure are Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, and Representatives Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, and Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican.

Separately, California Democratic Representative Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced legislation similar to the Kerry-Lugar measure. His version would specifically ban the sale of F-16 fighter planes to Pakistan; it is thought that the planes sold previously helped beef up the Pakistani Air Force for a potential war with India and were not used for the campaign against al-Qaeda. That measure would also require strict accountability measures.

Obama has also pledged to press other countries, including China and India, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund to boost developmental aid to Pakistan. The idea behind all these efforts is simple: A prosperous people are more likely to seek peace, rather than turning to terrorism to channel their economic frustrations.

To make sure that the Pakistanis are moving toward the goal of eliminating al-Qaeda, the Obama administration will develop as-yet-unspecified “metrics” and other gauges of progress. In requiring military aid to adhere to such benchmarks, Obama struck another contrasting note with his predecessor.

“We must focus our military assistance on the tools, training, and support that Pakistan needs to root out the terrorists. And after years of mixed results, we will not, and cannot, provide a blank check,” the president said. “Pakistan must demonstrate its commitment to rooting out al-Qaeda and the violent extremists within its borders. And we will insist that action be taken—one way or other—when we have intelligence about high-level terrorist targets.”

Obama is treading a different path from Bush and every American president since 1947. No longer is nuclear war between India and Pakistan the primary preoccupation of South Asia hands in Washington. It is now terrorism, and Washington’s scrutiny has shifted to the northwest of India.

In a sense, the U.S. is moving toward a comprehensive plan of action, in concert with the Pakistanis, to eliminate a problem the U.S. helped create during the 1980s: al-Qaeda. When the Soviets occupied Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989, the fierce mujahideen were recruited, trained, and armed by the Pakistani intelligence service with funding and weaponry supplied by the CIA, which was engaged in a “proxy” war against the Soviets, using the Pakistanis as “surrogates” to carry out Washington’s objectives.

Once the Soviets were driven out, some of the mujahideen—led by one Osama bin Laden—formed al-Qaeda to further their own religious and political goals. The group wants to drive the Indians out of their part of Kashmir and has, as shown clearly on 9/11, decided to do battle with the sole superpower in the world. Now it is intent on disrupting Pakistan, a consequence of Musharraf’s decision to cooperate with the Americans after 9/11.

Meanwhile, the Pakistanis are happy about the developmental aid, but do not want lessons on governance from Washington. Even before Obama spelled out his new vision, Zardari made it clear that he wants to be a partner, not a problem, but he also bristled at being told how to run things.

“Unlike in the 1980s, we are surrogates for no one. With all due respect, we need no lectures on our commitment. This is our war. It is our children and wives who are dying,” Zardari wrote in a January column in The Washington Post.

He went on: “For almost 60 years, the relationship between Pakistan and America has been based on quid pro quo policies with short-term goals and no long-term strategy. Frankly, the abandonment of Afghanistan and Pakistan after the defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s set the stage for the era of terrorism that we are enduring. U.S. support for the priorities of dictatorship back then, and again at the start of the new millennium, neglected the social and economic development of our nation, the priorities of the people. We must do better.”

Zardari expressed support for the Kerry-Lugar development aid bill, and Obama’s embrace of the measure is clearly an early victory for the Pakistanis. But a lot remains unclear: whether the U.S. succeeds in helping the Pakistanis combat terrorism, whether it can help Pakistan’s economy over the long-term, whether the Zardari government can hold on to power, and whether it will quell terrorism in Pakistan or fall victim to it. The road ahead is strewn with sharp stones and some giant boulders, but Washington and Islamabad believe it is one worth taking.

Raju Chebium is a congressional correspondent for Gannett News Service in Washington, D.C. Previously he worked for The Associated Press and, while freelancing for India Currents, The Indian Express, and The New York Times. Raju holds a masters in government from Johns Hopkins University. His thesis examined the Indo-U.S. relationship since 1947.

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