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Visit of US Secretary of State to South Asia: A New Beginning for Af-Pak Region?

Yogendra Kumar

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visitto South Asia, including India, is an indication that the US administration’s South Asia policy is coming to grips with its minutiae. With US President’s statement(August) on Afghanistan as the centerpiece –but also seen as his South Asia policy articulation – the South Asian region has already been to visit by the National Security adviser (April), US Defence Secretary (September) and, now, by the US Secretary of State (23-25 October). Whilst the US Defence Secretary did not visit Pakistan, which he is expected to do shortly, there have been high-level interactions as well as working level visits between the US and Pakistan for the two sides to get a measure of each other.


The US Secretary of State was on an extended tour to the Middle East, South Asia and Europe where his uneasy relationship with the US President came into sharper focus in terms of his personal effectiveness being called into question through diplomatic snubs both in Saudi Arabia as well as in Pakistan.


The South Asian region is facing challenges of uncertainty and instability because of which an assessment of a more engaged US administration with the countries of the region is important. Afghanistan is facing major existential challenges with a resurgenceinTaliban military activity casting a shadow on the capital itself; during his unannounced visit to Kabul, Tillersondid not go into town but had the Afghan President and the Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, come to meet him at the US-controlled Bagram airbase. A degree of political disarray is also palpable in Pakistan where the current Prime Minister, along with his Cabinet, is not seen as someone who is firmly in the saddle for taking the difficult decisions required; the political leadership is unhappy with the Pakistan Army attempts to “mainstream” jihadist elements into the political party system whilst being embarrassed, at the same time, by strong words of condemnation of the government policy on jihadist elements in US as well as elsewhere. In the context of Southwest Asian developments, India alone has a firm leadership and a strong government to play a stabilising role, especially in Afghanistan.


By all accounts, Secretary of State’s South Asia visit was largely Afghan-centric, including a strong focuson Pakistan’s role in making things better. In India, of course, the gamut of issues covered was much broader in that there was a wider discussion on India-US collaboration in the larger Indo-Pacific region, which is seen as fashioning a policy towards China amongst several countries whose assertive policies being considered as destabilising. In thatcontext, defence cooperation as well as broader strategic cooperation with high salience for India’s role was emphasised. On Afghanistan, there was encouragement for India playing a somewhat stronger role in defence and security spheres without any direct force commitment; this open encouragementto India goes beyond the earlier US policy and is certainly anathema to Pakistan and, to a certain degree, of concern to China and others:geopolitics around that country have shifted considerably with China, Iran, Russia veering towards Pakistan whilst India’s growing involvement is seen as supportive of the US objectives and the Afghan leadership.


The complexity inheres in the attitude of Pakistan whose denials of support to terrorist elements, including the increasingly violentTaleban with the growing role of the Haqqani network, are not seen as credible invoking stronger critical response from Afghanistan, US and India. During his brief interaction in Islamabad, lasting nearly four hours, the Pakistan side stated that its own sacrifices in fighting terrorism and promoting peace and stability in Afghanistan are being ignored by the US. On the eve of Secretary of State’s visit, the Quadrilateral Dialogue between US, Afghanistan, China and Pakistan was revived although the outcome of its Muscat meeting, on 16 October, has remained uncertain. In the typical hypocritical manner, well understood in India, the Pakistan side told the US delegation that Pakistan will take action if there is credible evidence brought up by the US government.


The US Secretary of State’s message on the necessity for a decisive action by Pakistan against terrorist groups was unmistakable and these were stated in Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi. This, along with the expected deployment of nearly 3000 additional US troops in Afghanistan, with expectations of a matching contribution by the other NATO countries, and a certain fatigue in US and other participating countries with their longest post-Second World War military engagement, is a strong pointer that US pressure on Pakistan will increase. US Secretary of State stated publicly that he had told the Pakistan side that the US will take unilateral action in case Pakistan is seen to be not doing as expected by the US. He stated, repeatedly, that Pakistan itself faces instability on account of this policy.


What form this pressure on Pakistan will take is something which would be watched in India very closely. The US and NATO dependence on their military supply routes through Pakistan has been used by the latter two put pressure on them on several occasions. The earlier northern supply route, through Russia and the Central Asian countries is no longer possible on account of strained US-Russia relations and a different supply route perhaps across Georgia and Azerbaijan and the Central Asian countries might need to be developed to counter the Pakistani blackmail. There is also a somewhat functioning relationship between their intelligence services and the US drones strike targets inside Pakistani territory; during the Secretary’s Islamabad talks, both sides exchanged list of terrorists wanted respectively, from Pakistan and Afghanistan and he stated, in New Delhi, that US and Pakistan will have a mechanism for sharing information and for counter-terrorism action. That apart, it is not clear as to what the attitude of Russia and China would be should US decide to apply a strong military pressure on Pakistan on this issue. Moreover, Pakistan is a very big country with nuclear weapons – a reference made by Trump in the context of tense military situation between India and Pakistan – and it is unlikely that the US would try to completely isolate it.


Despite explicit understandings between India and US that Pakistan must not allow terrorist camps and freedom for such elements to roam free on its territory, the coming days will show the extent to which the new US policy will be impacted by these constraints. The US priorities clearly concern the terrorist elements working against Afghanistan as the Indian observers look for similarly strong indications with regard to the terrorist elements working against India. Pakistan government’s decision not to bring terrorism charges against Hafiz Saeed coincided with the successful rescue by Pakistani troops of US-Canadian hostages. Understandably, President Trump, personally, thanked Pakistanbut, notably, the US did not make any comment on the Hafiz Saeed even though he is an internationally designated  terrorist carrying a US$10 million bounty on his head. At the same time, there has been expression of interest on the part of US for resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan; Tillerson, in his Washington speech on India on the eve of his visit, stated, “And, we intend to work closely with India and with Pakistan to, we hope, these tensions along their border as well”.


As India-Pakistan relations remain tense, the prospects for their dialogue still seem remote. However, the US thinking that India-Pakistan dialogue is a factor in the stabilization of the Southwest Asian region is important. It may be mentioned that India has appointed a domestic interlocutor on Kashmir and there has been a meeting between the Pakistan High Commissioner and the External Affairs Minister. Expectedly, the government has denied that these have a link with either the Afghan peace process or the Tillerson visit, this coincidence cannot but be noticed.


All elements in this chessboard seem to be in place.How things will develop in future remains subject to several imponderables, both within the region and outside it. With these initial moves, the interested governments as well as strategic observers are watching as to how they will be followed further since the US engagement is underpinned by a clear policy. The domestic factors, such a situation in Pakistan, remain important as well so the manner in which US diplomacy towards Southwest Asia will play out on the ground. Its transactional manner, characterised by celebration of small victories,will give Pakistan a space to play its game; or, the strength of an adverse development on the ground will force the US to take a stronger, decisive action triggering a likely strong response from Pakistan, China and Russia. Whilst India should welcome a hardened American position on Pakistan, critical factor in theresolution of the Afghanistan crisis, there is quite a bit of wait and watch involved. The resources of US diplomacy, with possibilities of changes at the top as seen in recent differences between Tillerson and Trump, can also affect the pace and effectiveness of this diplomacy. The prospects of stability in Southwest Asia still remain unclear and India will have to be more watchful than ever.


Yogendra Kumar has been India’s ambassador to the Philippines and Tajikistan and High Commissioner to Namibia. He has authored ‘Diplomatic Dimension of Maritime Challenges for India in the 21st Century’ (Pentagon Press, 2015) and edited ‘Whither Indian Ocean Maritime Order?’(Knowledge World, 2017).

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