Modi and Obama during the Asean Summit in Laos last week
Sept. 15: The Obama administration has flatly refused to go along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's formulations on Balochistan.
It has questioned the contention that Hafiz Saeed was the architect of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 and firmly ruled out any sanctions on Pakistan for promoting terrorism.
Further, the US has obliquely warned India in public - and more directly in private - about the possibility of a terrorist attack from across the border in Pakistan.
India-Pakistan disputes, which had largely disappeared from being a permanent item on the US state department's daily briefing agenda since the Kargil war and the 2001 Parliament attack, are back at the front and centre of Washington's public enunciation of foreign policy.
In the past one week, India-Pakistan relations took up considerable time every day during the briefings at Foggy Bottom, the site of the state department headquarters. Without mincing words, the Obama administration has made it clear that it wants India and Pakistan to resume their dialogue to "de-escalate tensions" and work towards "cordial, and productive relations".
On Balochistan, the state department's spokesperson, John Kirby, said the US "respects the unity and territorial integrity of Pakistan and we do not support independence for Balochistan".
He refused to make common cause with India on human rights violations in the restive Pakistani province, which were raised by India at the UN Human Rights Council at its ongoing session in Geneva on Wednesday.
When reporters tried to corner the spokesperson on on Modi's Independence Day initiative to internationalise the Balochistan problem, Kirby hastily attempted to end his briefing.
"Okay. Thanks, everybody," he said and folded his briefing book indicating that the press conference was over. Obviously, the Obama administration did not want to snub Modi by openly disagreeing with him.
The reporters managed to extend the briefing, however, by changing the subject. Said one very persevering reporter: "Wait, I got two very...."
He quickly asked a question on Syria which Kirby obligingly answered. Then the briefing continued about the Hezbollah of Lebanon.
Deputy spokesperson Mark Toner's refusal to go along with a reporter's description of Lashkar-e-Toiba co-founder Saeed as the "mastermind" of the terrorist outrage in Mumbai eight years ago was infinitely more unexpected than the US response on Balochistan.
Toner: You are saying this (Saeed) is one of the architects of the Mumbai attack?
Toner: Who made this statement? I mean, I would dismiss it outright.
He then proceeded to extol America's "strong bilateral relationship" with Pakistan and argued that the relationship "is premised on counter-terrorism cooperation".
In what sounded like a sop for India, Toner added: "As part of that conversation or that dialogue and that cooperation that we have on counter-terrorism issues, we made it very clear that Pakistan cannot pick and choose which terrorist groups it goes after and it has to go after those groups that seek to do harm to its neighbours and may seek refuge on Pakistani soil."
Reporters took Toner to task for not imposing sanctions on Pakistan for the lack of progress in bringing the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attack to justice: not because it was an attack on India but only because six Americans lost their lives in that terrorist outrage.
"If the same six Americans were killed in any other country, we would have had sanctions, we would have - talk(ed) more tough. Why aren't we doing that with Pakistan? There is - where is the talk? Where is the - it is only the statements from the podiums," ranted an angry reporter at the briefing.
Toner replied: "Well, again, you are asking me - and the question was whether we are looking at sanctioning Pakistan. No. The answer is that we are working with Pakistan, we are making our concerns clear that they need to go after all the terrorist groups that are operating or seeking safe haven on their soil. And that has been our clear objective for a long time now."
In a straight contradiction of the Indian position on the issue, Toner claimed that "we have seen progress (by Pakistan), but we need to see more".
He revealed that the US has been pressing India and Pakistan to share intelligence. "We have been very clear that we want to see accountability and justice in the case of the Mumbai attacks and, as you noted, there were American citizens who lost their lives in that - those terrible attacks. We have long encouraged and pushed for greater counter-terrorism cooperation, and that includes the sharing of intelligence between India and Pakistan in that regard. That continues, those efforts continue. As I said, we want to see full accountability for these terrible attacks."
Sources in Washington have said the Obama administration is worried that if tensions between India and Pakistan continue to be ratcheted up, a terrorist attack like the one in Mumbai eight years ago cannot be ruled out, not necessarily with state support from non-state actors across the border.
These fears were conveyed to India during the recent Strategic and Commercial Dialogue in New Delhi, not on the basis of any hard evidence, but dictated by logic and experiences from the history of India-Pakistan relations.
The public expression of these fears at the state department briefing was very circumspect. Toner said the US was encouraging India and Pakistan to resume their dialogue "out of just that concern, which is that we don't want to see tensions escalate, spiral out of control and lead to some kind of incident".
In intelligence parlance these days, "incident" is code for a terrorist attack. The rationale in having publicly articulated Washington's fears, albeit in a guarded manner, may have been to convey the urgency of resuming the India-Pakistan dialogue to a wider audience than those that were part of the recent Indo-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue.