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11 January 2014, Gateway House

U.S: Losing friends, gaining nothing

Following Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade’s expulsion, ties between India and the U.S. have hit a new low. This comes at a time when the two countries should be working closely to address the changing security matrix in Asia

Director, Gateway House

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It’s a good thing that the U.S. economy is on an uptick these days, for in the friends department, the U.S. is facing a depletion.

Obeying China’s December diktat on the no-fly zone over the Senkaku Islands, and urging its western allies like Australia to do so too, was a move in the opposite direction of east and south east Asia which is fearful of Chinese dominance.

Now the U.S. is losing friends in South Asia too, most notably India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The expulsion of an Indian diplomat from New York, the support given to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and its extremist ally the Jamaat in Bangladesh, pushing Afghanistan into a military treaty, and continuing its hypocrisy with Pakistan are some of the more recent reasons.

India first: On January 9, the New York attorney’s office indicted Devyani Khobragade, Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the United Nations, of alleged visa fraud and misrepresentation. Having turned a diplomatic spat into an international incident, the State Department expelled a diplomat to whom it had granted immunity just the day before. Washington could have sought a way of reducing the charges against Khobragade – especially given that diplomats are generally treated discreetly on the basis of reciprocity, and some like the Saudis in the U.S., excessively so. Expelling Khobragade was a way out of the impasse, certainly; but it was perhaps the worst way out embittering both Indian politicians and serving professional diplomats.

Would that Washington view its actions in a mirror. For the immunity issue a la Khobragade is small thing compared to the scale of what it is demanding from Afghanistan. The U.S. wants full legal immunity for all its forces staying on in Afghanistan, as also the 100,000 contract employees under its cover, so it can continue its project in Afghanistan – threatening Afghan President Hamid Karzai that it may otherwise exercise a zero troop option as it did in Iraq precipitating the return to near civil war conditions there, leaving Afghanistan with neither military nor repeatedly promised economic support, should complete immunity not be granted to U.S. forces.

Immunity is also what the U.S. demanded – and extracted – in Pakistan for embassy contractor Raymond Davis who in 2011 shot dead two Pakistanis in broad daylight, in front of witnesses.

Is this exceptionalism gone haywire?  The U.S. praises a brave Karachi police chief killed on January 9 by the Taliban, and a 14-year-old schoolboy who died the same day preventing a suicide bomber from entering his school gates – but it continues its drone strikes. Here it is complicit with successive Pakistani governments which publicly decry the strikes but privately welcome them. Former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates in his new book, Duty, reveals that he has defended Pakistan in the U.S. Congress but believes that Pakistan is no ally. What a way to treat a “friend” with whom you are co-fighting the “war on terror?”

Terror is just what is being unleashed in Bangladesh by the BNP-Jamaat combine – but the U.S. prefers to assess it differently. Washington was supportive, sotto voce, when the Egyptian military ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power last year. Certainly the Brotherhood was unpopular, but it was elected. In Bangladesh, however, the unelected Jamaat, a more vicious version of the Brotherhood which committed genocide on its own people in 1971 in complicity with the Pakistani army, is receiving sympathy from the U.S. over the secular elected Awami League of Sheikh Hasina. Religious minorities, especially Hindus, are also the victims of the Jamaat’s dangerous, shocking violence. The Jamaat in the sub-continent’s east, is the counterpart of the al Qaeda and Taliban in its west.

Despite India’s diplomatic efforts, especially with Washington, to support a moderate Hasina government, the U.S.  looks at Bangladesh through the lens of Pakistan, as it did in 1971, suspicious of Hasina’s outreach to China and Russia for lucrative development contracts.

Finally Sri Lanka. Washington has been critical of Colombo, as has India, over the wanton killings of the Tamils in the endgame with the LTTE. But while India has been hobbled by domestic Tamil politics, the U.S. has frittered away its influence in this strategically placed teardrop of an island in the Indian Ocean.

The narrative that the U.S. should pay attention to is this – the three major Islamic countries in South Asia are in flux, and the U.S. role is far from constructive in appreciating the efforts of their secular and democratic forces.

Towards India, which is experiencing the arrival of an optimistic new democratic and governance agenda – to which all of south Asia is awake – the U.S. is flippant, disregarding a relationship which yesterday was characterised as the most critical of the twenty first century, code words for balancing China should it completely shed the restraints it placed till the beginning of this century.

Caught in the tit-for-tat game that is being played on the chessboard of the bilateral, are vital interests. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz cancelled a critical trip this month which would have charted out U.S. – India energy co-operation and the initiation of U.S. shale gas exports to India.

It is a loss for both sides, certainly. A secure south and east Asia is in the interest of both India and the U.S. But miscalculations have set back the agenda. Resuming initiatives and rebuilding trust and high comfort levels will take time – vital time lost – when instead the two countries should be in close consultation over the changing security matrix of an Asia repositioning itself around an assertive China – and emboldened extremism in South Asia that’s positioning itself for a post-2014, post-U.S. influence, era.

Neelam Deo is Co-founder and Director, Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations; She has been the Indian Ambassador to Denmark and Ivory Coast; and former Consul General in New York.

Manjeet Kripalani is the Co-founder and Executive Director of Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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