However, emotional responses tend to be exaggerated. Clearly, the US wants leverage over a difficult country, and the only way is through military-to-military contacts. Plus, this is such a brazenly opportunistic move, dependent upon a specific quid pro quo and with an expiry date of November written all over, that it may pale in significance by next year.
Lets look at events as the Bush administration sees them. In Iraq, there are mounting casualties, start of potentially violent protests by the Shiite majority, moral loss of face over the whole WMD issue, and a political slap by the new Spanish governments decision to withdraw troops (with Thailand and Poland about ready to follow suit). Domestically, continuing job losses and a 50 per cent increase in petrol prices have hurt seriously. Over five million jobs have been lost in the past four years, much due to deep structural defects in the economy, but a sitting President reaps the bitter harvest.
The most recent opinion poll by the Pew Research Centre has Bushs approval ratings down to 43 per cent, the lowest ever in his presidency and a far cry from the days immediately after 9/11 or the Iraq invasion. The simple fact is that in order to avoid further political slide, the Bush regime desperately needs to deliver Osama to US voters before the November elections, and the only country that can help is Pakistan.
There were signs for some time of something big in the offing. Reports from the US have talked about a rise in special war shipment to the region along with a suspension of leave to crack armed units, while US media has quietly been sending additional reporters to Pakistan for the past few weeks, just in case the Get Osama campaign yields results. Comically enough, many of them are thoroughly bored and forced to spend their time reporting on the India-Pakistan cricket series. The only high value target they have seen so far is Sachins wicket.
The most worrying aspect of Pakistan getting the MNNA status is not that it happened or that India was not taken into confidence or even the patronising offer of parity extended to India. Together, they point to no more than ham-handedness by a besieged US regime. In fact, even in Pakistan, there are worries if not dismissal of this symbolic gesture. A recent Dawn editorial talks about the social price Pakistan is going to have to pay for any anti-Taliban military action in the frontier areas.
The real worry for India ought to be that this audacious move invited such feeble public backlash in the US. Unlike Pakistan which has its friends largely in the Pentagon remember the old funny line, youll always be my best friend because you know too much Indian links with the US are deeper and more broad-based. Or so we thought. But in the current context, there has been only muted reaction and vague wordings of caution from American newspapers, not the kind of overwhelming Youre giving what to Pakistan! outcry that was expected. Do they not realise how dangerous military sales can be to a country that is one of the most indoctrinated, if not the most unstable, on earth and with a populace which is so vehemently anti-American
Which leads to the real point: despite real progress in cultivating friends on Capitol Hill, India is still distant from larger American calculations, just as we display remarkable naivete about American realpolitics. Many thinkers routinely interpret American unilateralism and opportunism only from a South Asian perspective and only as a peculiarity of the Texan cowboy gang. But both Republicans and Democrats behave this way all the time, especially at moments of crisis when the impulse is the strongest, the only difference being that the Democrats are better at pretending to listen.
In the end, the MNNA status may do little for Pakistan. The odds are that by next year it will face a less pliable US administration. But this is a useful reminder that behind all the cricket-inspired emotional outpouring between India and Pakistan, real peace is very slippery, and that strategic dialogues and narrowly populated track-II encounters with the US have a limited value.
The author is an analyst of Indian political and business trends and the editor of India Focus, a political risk report for international investors