Trump's new South Asia strategy: How India became part of 'solution' to Afghan problem
The biggest challenge though is expected to arise from the infamously inconsistent and utilitarian US president.
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India is all set to become a major stakeholder in Afghanistan as per Trump administration’s new South Asia strategy.
The new policy envisages more pressure on Pakistan to forsake its "strategic assets" and no US troop withdrawal deadline from war-torn Afghanistan.
Although the Modi government conveyed to US defence secretary James Mattis (during the latter's recent visit to New Delhi) that India would not send its combat troops to Afghanistan, the expanded scale and scope of India’s security, economic and developmental involvement in Kabul will mark a significant shift in South Asian geopolitics.
Mattis, who endorsed India as a “major defence partner” of the US, is the senior-most official from the US administration to visit India since Donald Trump became the US president. He is also seen as one of the few key US officials who drew up the new South Asia policy.
Since the start of asymmetric warfare in Afghanistan following the Soviet intervention in 1979, the Afghan theatre has decisively shaped the geopolitics of Indian subcontinent. The US-financed Afghan war championing the cause of "jihad" against the "infidel" USSR witnessed Washington deepen its strategic partnership with Pakistan, much to New Delhi’s discomfiture.
When the departure of the Soviet troops threw Afghanistan back to medieval times and brought the fundamentalist Taliban to power, the US chose to ignore the realities on the ground. Until 9/11 happened, only a handful of US policymakers were willing to acknowledge that choices made under the umbrella of the Cold War radically transformed the course of history in the South Asian region.
Since the early 2000s, as the US began warming up to India, Afghanistan still remained a bone of contention even as Pentagon discouraged India from either providing military assistance or sending troops to Afghanistan.
However, things are going to change sooner than later as New Delhi seeks to scale up the level of its engagement in Afghanistan with strong support from the Trump administration, which seems convinced that the status quo on the Afghan front would only encourage chaos and disorder.
The pivotal point here is that the current American strategy sharply differs from the past in terms of addressing concerns regarding Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan.
Also, for the first time in the history of Indo-US relations, India is being perceived as a part of the solution to the Afghan problem.
The US president has uncompromisingly demanded that Pakistan must immediately terminate its plans aimed at the destabilisation of Afghanistan by providing safe havens to Afghan Taliban, while singling out India to play a larger role.
The emphasis of his policy speech has been on India increasing its economic and developmental assistance to Afghanistan.
The visit of Mattis must have given a concrete shape to Indo-US discussions on how to achieve that policy objective. Both the countries are not oblivious to the bitter truth that without stronger security assistance to the Ashraf Ghani-led government, the ascent of the Taliban could not be reversed. And all talks of development in Afghanistan could become more fruitless.
India strongly believes that true peace and meaningful stability in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without total and unconditional dismantling of all terrorist networks as well as sustained counter-extremism campaigns across Pakistan.
As India is considering the contours of its security involvement in Afghanistan, the focus has been on the issue of India putting boots on the ground.
Now, when the Modi government has clearly ruled out sending combat troops to Afghanistan, the US is not likely to press India further for this role. Still, there is much that India is capable of doing militarily to bail out the fragile Kabul government, which has been bearing the brunt of Taliban onslaught.
It must be recalled that the landmark October 2011 strategic partnership agreement between India and Afghanistan unmistakably called for security cooperation between the countries.
In fact, India was the first country to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. Then why did India avoid fulfilling this role despite repeated requests from the Afghan government?
One of the primary reasons for India’s unwillingness stemmed from its concerns regarding Pakistan’s sensitivities in this regard.
Pakistan’s "deep state" remains terrified of an imaginary Kabul-Delhi axis that would "encircle" Pakistan, with the Indian Army along a contested eastern border and Afghans on its disputed western border, known as the Durand Line.
The previous US administrations accommodated Pakistan’s insistence that if the Taliban are to be "persuaded" to enter into peace negotiations and the supply lines through Pakistan to the NATO troops are not to be disrupted, India must not be allowed to have any kind of security presence in Afghanistan.
However, New Delhi’s marked restraint in Afghanistan has not yielded any positive response from Islamabad. Still functioning within its own ivory tower, isolated from the changing strategic realities of South Asia, Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has just underlined Islamabad's concerns in his recent address to the UN that Pakistan is against India having any kind of role in Afghanistan.
Although Pakistan’s foreign minister Khawaja Asif has spoken with remarkable candidness about his country's need to reflect on its faulty security policy choices and to put their house in order, there is no indication yet of Islamabad willing to try and correct the errors of the past.
Since India has not received any strategic or political benefit from its restraint in Afghanistan, the Modi government is on the brink of abandoning India’s hesitant stance.
Another factor that was considered a hindrance in India’s military role in Afghanistan is lack of geographical access between India and Afghanistan. That is why India has been content to confine its assistance to Afghanistan in the realm of reconstruction and development, and the training of Afghan security forces.
However, this very physical distance magnifies the range of soft power that India projects in Afghanistan and strengthens the bonds of friendship between the two people who rarely meet.
With the Modi government coming to power, India has pursued a much more vigorous foreign policy with New Delhi gradually discarding its traditional reluctance, as reflected in the supply of four combat helicopters to Afghanistan.
Moreover, the Trump administration’s active encouragement to India to take greater responsibilities in Afghanistan has also been a decisive factor in removing whatever inhibitions New Delhi had for a larger footprint in Afghanistan.
As India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and her Afghan counterpart, Salahuddin Rabbani, have announced in New Delhi in the second week of September, New Delhi and Kabul would strengthen security cooperation, and India would provide more assistance to the Afghan armed forces.
Training and supply of equipment for the Afghan security forces is critical to enable their government to maintain peace in the country. And India is well placed to perform that role.
Whether Pakistan acquiesces or not to India’s role in Afghanistan, it would not alter the situation much.
The fast-changing scenario following Trump’s Af-Pak policy "bombshell" is undoubtedly a watershed moment not only for Indo-US relations, but also for India’s South Asia policy.
Since Islamabad’s relentless outbursts do not seem to sway the current occupant of the White House who has always resented this impression that it is Pakistan that holds the initiative in Afghanistan, the US is merely the ringmaster.
Besides rebuking Pakistan for harbouring "agents of chaos, violence and terror", Trump rubbed salt into the self-inflicted wounds of Pakistan by not holding a formal meeting with the Pakistani prime minister recently at the United Nations while meeting the Afghan president.
Echoing Trump’s harsh words against Pakistan, Mattis noted in New Delhi that there "can be no tolerance of terrorist safe havens". How is this message going to be interpreted in Pakistan, is not much of a mystery.
An enhanced Indo-US strategic coordination in Afghanistan coupled with Pakistan’s manifestly hostile reaction is going to change the international relations in South Asia.
The basic tenets of India’s approach – a strong and democratic Afghanistan able to decide its own future – remain unchanged. However, as a regional power with high stakes in ensuring peace and stability in its northern frontiers, India can no longer avoid taking greater responsibility in Afghanistan. The message from the Modi government is unmistakable: India will do what it has planned in Afghanistan, and it would not seek Pakistan’s approval.
Despite the daringly new beginning, questions remain in terms of policy substance of Trump administration’s diplomatic approach towards South Asia.
For India, the biggest challenge is expected to arise from the infamously inconsistent and utilitarian Trump, who may ease the pressure after the Pakistani army sacrifices some well-known jihadist pawns in order to save the jihadist infrastructure.