The tension between Washington and Islamabad over the former's drone assaults on targets in Pakistan is rising. But a prospective geopolitical rivalry involving both countries has even wider ramifications.
The reported death of Abu Yahya al-Libi in a drone attack on 4 June 2012 is seen in Washington as a serious blow to what remains of the al-Qaida movement in north-west Pakistan. His status is open to question and may be less than Barack Obama's administration would want the public to believe. But the incident is further proof of the central role of armed drones in United States operations in the region (see "Drone warfare: cost and challenge" [23 June 2011]; "The drone-war blowback" [29 September 2011]; and "America's new wars, and militarised diplomacy" [31 May 2012].
Drone attacks in Pakistan increased substantially after Obama became president in January 2009. There had been five in 2007 and thirty-five in 2008; the number went up to fifty-three in 2009 and 117 in 2010. There was a drop in 2011, partly due to public opposition in Pakistan, and a pause earlier in 2012 after the killing of twenty-four Pakistani soldiers in a cross-border attack in November 2011, but this was followed by another surge in activity.
Washington sees the use of drones as a successful policy, whereas for Islamabad it represents an infringement of its national sovereignty. The Pakistan government's criticism owes much to the strength of public opinion, which in turn is fuelled by direct experience of the drones - not least the fact that they are frequently audible and visible, thus making their affront obvious.
The Obama administration is most unlikely to curb its drone operations in the context of a difficult re-election campaign in which Mitt Romney will constantly play on the idea of a weak and defeatist president. Indeed, reports of Obama's direct involvement in drone-attack decisions reflect a conscious decision to attempt to counter this portrayal (see Jo Becker & Scott Shane, "Secret 'Kill List' Proves a Test of Obama's Principles and Will", New York Times, 29 May 2012). The effect will be to worsen relations between Pakistan and the United States still further.
This, in turn, is likely to be greatly exacerbated by two other factors that have little or nothing to do with the drones and have attracted far less attention than they deserve. Both concern the relationship between India and the United States, and are likely to have a substantial and persistent impact in the coming years, whoever is voted into the White House in November 2012.
An emerging axis
The first factor is pressure from the Pentagon to get India greatly to expand its military aid to Afghanistan (see Rahul Bedi, "US asks India to increase Afghan military assistance", Jane's Defence Weekly, 30 May 2012). A substantial team of US government officials had meetings in Delhi on 17-18 May; the officials sought multi-layered assistance from the Indian government that would go far beyond India's current limited role in military training, its training of the Afghan judiciary, and involvement in numerous engineering projects.
The US's wish-list includes direct Indian financial aid for Afghanistan's national-security forces (ANSF); the provision of training to 25,000 ANSF personnel (including up to 500 officers) at bases in India; and the supply of tanks, field-artillery, rocket-launchers, mortars, communications equipment and other materials.
The effect of all of this would be a deep and lasting relationship between India and the Afghan military. Such an outcome would be intensely opposed by Pakistan, though with little effect once Washington fulfils its intention to pull most of its forces from Afghanistan (after which it has little expectation of Pakistani cooperation).
This close linking of India with Afghanistan at the behest of the United States, is - taken on its own - as welcome in New Delhi as it is hated in Islamabad (see Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure", 11 July 2008). But it is only part of an evolving story, and here the second factor is of much wider geopolitical significance. This is the growing evidence of a deepening military relationship between the United States and India that relates to both countries' concern over the rise of China.
The United States defence secretary Leon Panetta made a high-level visit to New Delhi on 5 June that included scheduled meetings with the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, defence minister AK Antony, and national-security adviser Shivshankar Menon (see "U.S.-India to Talk Defense Tech Transfer, Co-production", Defense News, 5 June 2012).
Panetta, speaking at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis on 6 June, said that New Delhi "was a 'lynchpin' in a new military strategy focused on Asia"; that "military ties had dramatically improved over the past decade"; but that "more work [is] needed to ensure the two countries could safeguard the 'crossroads' of the global economy spanning the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific" (see "Leon Panetta in Delhi says India 'lynchpin' for American strategy in India", AFP/Times of India, 6 June 2012).
Such talk of a close relationship might seem presumptuous, given India's penchant for independence in foreign policy. But in reality the Indian armed forces are in desperate need of modernisation, and look to the United States to accelerate the whole process.
The problem of military obsolescence affecting India reflects its past reliance on Soviet weaponry, which is now very unreliable; for example, the MiG aircraft fleet has suffered 482 accidents over the past three decades, leading to the deaths of 171 pilots and thirty-nine civilians (see "New damning figures for India's 'flying coffin' MiGs", AFP, 2 May 2012). India's major internal defence problems include interminable delays in developing its indigenous light-combat aircraft.
European countries will look to potential arms markets in India, but the United States is at the forefront, offering a wide range of cooperative programmes, much of it involving advanced technologies. This is very good news for the US arms industry; but at the heart of the administration's concern is that India plays a key role in the containment of an anticipated Chinese military expansion, whether or not Beijing even has that in mind (see "China's military: threat or twist", 28 January 2011).
A new rivalry
The combination of these two factors induces something approaching political paranoia in Islamabad. Pakistan has long seen Afghanistan as providing it with defence in depth against its much more powerful neighbour: hence the need to maintain as much influence as possible, not least through support for the Taliban. Now it faces the prospect of India "invading" the Afghan space it considers vital to its security - and at the very time when India's military cooperation with the world's sole remaining superpower is increasing.
Two responses are likely. The first is a greater determination to ensure that Pakistan's allies in Afghanistan, especially the Taliban, have as big a role as possible in the future governance of the country. That alone will create many problems as the United States seeks to withdraw. The second is that Pakistan is almost certain to embark on a determined effort to intensify its existing ties with Beijing (see "Afghanistan: the regional complex", 6 October 2011).
It can thus be expected that Islamabad will attempt systematically to counter the United States-India axis in a way that provides China with a welcome opportunity to increase its own influence, not just in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan. This, the new "great game" now unfolding across Asia, promises interesting times.