The US National Security Adviser Lieutenant General (Retired) H. R. McMaster embarked on his maiden visit to South Asia on April 16, 2017 after Washington snubbed a Russian invitation to join the Moscow-initiated Afghan peace talks, and targeted the IS-owned network of caves and tunnels with the Mother of All Bombs (MOAB) in eastern Afghanistan. Earlier, Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, offered to mediate between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. However, the White House retracted this offer, and instead encouraged the two South Asian nuclear rivals to resolve Kashmir through direct dialogue.
McMaster’s trip to the region is part of the on-going consultation process ahead of finalizing the Trump administration’s South Asia policy. He visited Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi where he held discussions with the top leadership of these countries.
On April 16, McMaster landed in Kabul where he announced continued US military and economic assistance to Afghanistan to break the gridlock of the conflict to explore a political solution. Meanwhile, in his meetings with Pakistan’s political and military leadership on April 17, he delivered a tough message to Islamabad to fight terrorism and to use diplomacy instead of proxy war to solve regional issues. On April 18, McMaster arrived in New Delhi where he discussed the regional situation and security cooperation with top Indian officials, assuring India that it is the US’ major ally in Asia (not just South Asia) and defence partner in the global fight against terrorism.
So, what does one make of these developments and how will they affect the region, especially in the context of India-Pakistan relations? With the completion of the power transition in Washington DC, the pre-election rhetoric is subsiding, and the Trump administration is adopting a more assertive and muscular regional policy to fill the diplomatic void and power vacuum created in South Asia during the 2016 US presidential election.
From the perspective of major power politics, it is quite evident that the US will not cede any space to China or Russia to challenge its preponderant position in South Asia as the major security guarantor, conflict stabilizer, and arbiter. Arguably, China’s growing economic footprint in the region through its Belt and Road Initiative, the movement of Chinese submarines in the Indian Ocean Region through Pakistan’s Gwadar port, and growing Russian assertiveness in Afghanistan (through its diplomatic initiative to explore a regional solution to the Afghan conflict) potentially undermine the US’ geopolitical interests in the region. The Russian return to Afghanistan has divided the region into two competing diplomatic blocs: Russia-China-Pakistan-Central Asia and US-India-Afghanistan-NATO.
Reportedly, the top leaders of the major Western powers are not attending China’ New Silk Road summit scheduled for May, sans the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. The absence of top representation from the major Western nations will give the summit a China-centric look. American concerns with the expanding Chinese economic footprint in Asia, suspicions about China’s broader political goals, and the presence of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the summit will keep the top Western leaders away. US policy posturing in South Asia towards China and Russia will be aggressive and hard-hitting.
Keeping in view the US’ geopolitical interests in South Asia, India is America’s natural ally, as the two are the largest and oldest democracies. The long-term India-US interests in the region are aligned: containing China, fighting growing Islamic radicalism and militancy, curtailing nuclear proliferation and the black market, as well as supporting democracy in Afghanistan by keeping the Taliban out of the power structure
No wholesale changes are expected in America’s South Asia policy. It will be the continuation of the status quo but with more aggressive military and diplomatic posturing.
For firmly siding with the US on geopolitical issues involving China and Russia, New Delhi needs demonstrable American policy actions which address Indian concerns vis-a-vis Pakistan, and which give India a broader space in South Asia as the regional hegemon under the US umbrella. Since 9/11, notwithstanding close ties with India, successive US administrations have kept the Indian role in Afghanistan confined to economic development and nation building. Washington has been sensitive to Pakistani security concerns of the Indian role in Afghanistan. This has frustrated India. This is likely to change under the Trump administration, which will allow India to play a more assertive role in the security domain in Afghanistan, in addition to economic development and nation building.
Going by McMaster’s statements in Islamabad, the US will adopt a tough policy on Pakistan, pressurising it to take demonstrable action against militant groups, including the Pakistan-based anti-India and anti-Afghan militant groups. Washington will also turn the heat on Pakistan to expedite the slow-moving judicial trial against Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the main accused of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In future, “do more” will become the most commonly used phrase in US diplomatic statements towards Pakistan. US military and economic assistance to Pakistan will be slashed, along with making them conditional and criteria-based. There will be no more free lunches for Islamabad.
US-Pakistan ties will remain transactional, short-term, and trouble prone. The Trump administration will continue to view Pakistan from the narrow security lens of counter-terrorism and the conflict in Afghanistan. In a press statement from last December, the commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan General John W. Nicholson said: “20 of the 98 US-designated terrorist groups in the world were in the Af-Pak region (thirteen in Afghanistan and seven in Pakistan), making it the highest concentration of the terrorist groups anywhere in the world.”
Additionally, America will keep its dealings with Pakistan and India de-hyphenated despite the intricately intertwined nature of their bilateral disputes. With the rapidly changing global world order, the American conception of India and Pakistan has altered qualitatively. Washington does not view India from the narrow South Asian prism but as its partner in the Asia-Pacific to contain China, not just in the Indian Ocean but in the Indo-Pacific as well. In contrast, Pakistan is considered as an unreliable partner due to its growing ties with China and Russia.
The US will also increase its drone warfare in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region that had decreased dramatically in last two years. The Trump administration’ decision to return the authority of running the drone programme, after a hiatus of nine months, from the Pentagon to the CIA is indicative of this assertion.
No wholesale changes are expected in America’s South Asia policy. It will be the continuation of the status quo but with more aggressive military and diplomatic posturing. However, it is unlikely to change the complex ground realities in the region. The deadlock of the Afghan conflict, the mounting tensions in India-Pakistan ties, and the estrangement of US-Pakistan relations will grow further. Irrespective of their economic, diplomatic, and military prowess, neither China nor Russia are in a position to meaningfully challenge the preponderant US position in South Asia. At the same time, notwithstanding the US’ military muscle, economic edge, and political clout in South Asia, Pakistan (at its own peril) is unlikely to change its Afghanistan policy or alter its ways of dealing with various militant groups.