WASHINGTON – When a 12-year-old Indian prodigy defeated an 18-year-old Italian champion in chess this past June, he didn’t just win the game. He also became the second-youngest grandmaster – the highest rank possible – in chess history.
It was the latest development in what has become a “chess renaissance” for India over the last 15 years, as the country has rocketed to the game’s top ranks after decades of mediocrity. This transformation has paralleled a more symbolic one, as India – the world’s largest democracy – has risen steadily since the end of the Cold War into the ranks of geopolitical grandmasters, skillfully using its size, strength, and strategic location to expand its global presence. It’s a fitting rise for the civilization where chess first originated.
But as India has embraced the global chessboard, its neighbor and adversary Pakistan has instead trapped itself into a handful of squares in the corner. Where India is choosing moves that open up powerful possibilities, Pakistan – which announced this week it was seeking a bailout from the International Monetary Fund for its economy while simultaneously announcing a deal to buy 48 military drones from China – has let its obsession with India limit its diplomatic partners and constrain its options.
That dynamic was on full display last month as United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited India in September to strengthen U.S.-India ties, and then went to Pakistan with a much tougher message: we’ve fallen out of love with you. If Pakistan and its new prime minister, Imran Khan, seek a future where it is stable and prosperous, it ought to learn a few moves from its neighbor – and fast. It should start by taking swift action against the anti-U.S. Islamic extremists that continue to roam freely both within the borders of Pakistan and across its border with Afghanistan.
When I first visited India in 1997 as part of a U.S. delegation of business executives from the organization I founded, Business Executives for National Security (BENS), U.S. relations with India had been neglected for decades. But today, after years of concerted efforts by both sides, relations between the eagle and elephant have reached new heights. What’s more, India has managed to strengthen this relationship with the U.S. while also building friendly ties with other major powers, like China and Russia. In its ability to deepen relationships with so many global players with contradictory interests, India has shown that it is learning to play the great game like a grandmaster.
That’s a stark contrast with Pakistan, which maintains the world’s sixth-largest nuclear arsenal and continues to test-fire missiles and develop its capabilities to threaten India. Its obsession with India has also led it to shelter and support a rogue’s gallery of extremist groups that serve Islamabad’s foremost goal of threatening or destabilizing India – even if it means these groups also destabilize Afghanistan. It has sheltered key leaders of the Afghan Taliban and angered U.S. officials by its inaction in cracking down on extremist groups based in Pakistan that operate in Afghanistan.
In its typical tit-for-tat one-upmanship with Delhi, Islamabad trumpeted yesterday’s drone deal with China in direct response to a deal India signed last week to buy five regiments of S-400 missiles from Russia. For good measure, Pakistan also crowed about the successful launch on Monday of its nuclear-capable Ghauri Missile System, with a range of more than 800 miles. Yet, that military machismo quickly gave way to embarrassment upon news that Khan was seeking an IMF bailout of $12 billion to stave off economic meltdown, which immediately dropped the value of the Pakistani rupee by 10 percent.
Islamabad hasn’t had much luck with Washington lately: in January, the Trump Administration decided that the $33 billion in US taxpayer dollars sent to Pakistan since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2002 was a bad investment, and suspended military assistance altogether. In desperation, Pakistan proposed peace talks with India, the transparency of which Delhi saw through and quickly rejected.
Pakistan’s desperation and isolation is an opportunity to build on the Trump Administration’s pressure campaign to further hold Pakistan accountable. How? Three ways.
First, we should increase the costs of Pakistan’s behavior. The Trump Administration must make clear it will continue to hold back on further aid to Pakistan and deepen U.S. ties with India unless Pakistan changes course.
Second, Washington should lay out an achievable path for Pakistan to break out of its isolation and improve its position if it decides to pursue a new approach. If Pakistan engages with India in a sustained and meaningful peace process, for example, the U.S. could sponsor a regional economic plan that could boost Pakistan’s economy while building trust.
Third, and finally, while the U.S. uses carrots and sticks to change Pakistan’s long-term trajectory, it should also test possibilities for more immediate progress on relations with Afghanistan now that Khan has taken over as prime minister. Khan’s Pashtun tribal credentials could help achieve more productive talks with the Taliban, isolate extremist groups, and bring more stability to the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Above all, Pakistan must decide which board it is playing on: the small one against India or the large one that is more central to gaining power and respect among the rest of the world. Playing on the small board is a losing game. If Pakistan wants to thrive, it should follow the example of the grandmaster next door – before its reckless trouble-making ends in checkmate.