Congressman Jim McDermott was the keynote speaker at a panel discussion at the United States institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington DC earlier this week. The discussion, “The Quest for India Pakistan normalization: The Road Ahead,” examined key challenges to opportunities for India and Pakistan to work together towards mutual peace and prosperity, and what role – if any – the US can play in facilitating dialogue between the two South Asian powers.
Rep. McDermott served as a Foreign Service medical officer in Congo, and is a founding member of the Congressional Caucus on India and Indian Americans, which remains one of the largest country caucuses in the House of Representatives. His unique experience in developing countries has informed his views on the critical role of U.S government in helping countries build global coalitions and address global challenges.
During his keynote speech, Congressman McDermott observed that, when attitudes become habitual, it is extremely difficult to change them. This is particularly true in the case of Pakistan and India due to ongoing tensions that have existed since the two countries gained independence in 1947. For this reason, Rep. McDermott noted, dialogue is crucial to improving bilateral relations.
According to Rep. McDermott, the US needs to stop sending mixed signals to Pakistan. The sensitive geo-political environment exacerbates misunderstandings. He noted that the only example a working bilateral treaty between Pakistan and India is the Indus River treaty – one that was drafted without over US intervention. In fact, he said, when his team inquired about the dynamics of the treaty in the past, both Pakistani and Indian officials discouraged the US from becoming involved. This demonstrated, he concluded, that Pakistan and India are capable of working together, and that often overt US intervention can actually be an obstacle to successful dialogue.
Rep. McDermott also mentioned his distaste for the term “AfPak”. According to the Congressman, “AfPak” gives the impression that the US has a narrow counterterrorism focus in the region, ignoring the important development work that is aimed at improving the health, education, and economic opportunities of all Pakistanis.
When discussing cross border tensions, Rep. McDermott gave the example of fishermen being arrested and jailed for accidentally crossing an invisible border in the open water. Fishermen from both sides are often held for years despite the fact the fishermen’s only fault lie in trying to earn a living. This example tied into Rep. McDermott’s second major point, which was that economic cooperation can be a catalyst for cooling political tensions.
Congressman McDermott urged Pakistan’s political leaders and opinion-makers to also focus on economic development and opportunities and expand the middle class – a crucial element of social and political reform. Projects that foster regional economic connectivity, such as the proposed Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline which would transport natural gas from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan and then to India, he said, can benefit all nations in the region as well as build a foundation of trust and cooperation that can aid in resolving more difficult issues.
Congressman McDermott concluded his remarks saying that, though the task is enormous, it is not impossible. Where there is political will and neutral third party facilitation, Pakistan–India relations can be transformed from one based in mutual suspicion to one of mutual benefit. While the US can play a facilitating role, however, it should be one that respects the centrality of Pakistan and India in determining their own futures.