Donald Trump's South Asia policy hard on Pakistan but seeks to use India to counter China; Afghanistan remains challenge
In the days to come, the Trump administration’s actions vis-à-vis the United States’ ‘forever war’ will determine the novelty of Trump’s New South Asia strategy.
On Wednesday in Washington, Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi urged the Trump administration to resume military aid and underscored Pakistan’s intention to act "in good faith" to jumpstart diplomacy with the Taliban. This expression of Pakistani intention reflects a crucial development in view of President Donald Trump’s repeated derision of Pakistani duplicity of giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” The same is also significant as it comes at a time of increased focus of the Trump administration on the region -- as it mulls the successes and failures of its New South Asia strategy a little over a year since its announcement.
The Trump administration approach to South Asia -- chiefly vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Pakistan and India -- has reflected certain key semblances to past administration’s experiences. As under the administrations of George W Bush and Barack Obama, the Trump administration has sought a three-pronged objective in South Asia. First, honing an expansive conception of US interests in Afghanistan to also involve military action against the Taliban -- and not just the Al Qaeda. Second, prioritising cooperation with the Pakistani security apparatus in-line with US tactical and political objectives towards denying a safe haven to terror organisations in the region. Third, seeking India’s integration into the United States’ regional security calculus in order to cultivate a “natural balancer” to China.
This continuity stems from the institutionalisation of recent US administration’s approach to the region. The two key examples being, the delinking of India and Pakistan in US strategic thought in view of China’s twenty-first century rise -- propounded by president George Bush’s secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and pursuing the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) linkage for tactical and political aims of the ‘War on Terror’ -- attributed to the first US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke appointed by president Barack Obama. However, the efficacy of these policies has borne little fruit as past dispensations have found themselves caught in a continuum of bungling Afghanistan, condoning Pakistan, and assuaging Indian reluctance.
The pursuit of expansive US interests for nearly 17 years has rendered Afghanistan to be the United States’ longest war. Dubbed as America’s ‘forever war’, a Pentagon-led counterinsurgency campaign aimed to win ‘hearts and minds’ has recurrently failed to strengthen the Afghan civilian dispensation with popular legitimacy, build Afghan local forces capability, and prevent ‘insider attacks’ against international forces. This open-ended effort -- aided by a vaguely-worded post-9/11 ‘Authorisation for Use of Military Force’ (AUMF), rendered an American operational dependency on the Pakistani security apparatus -- from intelligence sharing provisions to logistical transport corridors across the Hindu Kush.
This dependency often informed American ambivalence towards Pakistani duplicity of harbouring terror organisations -- like the Haqqani network, defined along its Manichaean outlook -- infamously characterised by its rationalisation of “good” and “bad” terrorists. Successive US administrations complained of Pakistani insincerity, and merely cried wolf at the Pakistani security apparatus’ -- chiefly the army and the ISI, overbearing role in state matters. However, Pakistan continued to receive American funds under the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) provision. Mere calls for strengthening the civilian dispensation in Islamabad bore little fruits -- much less change Pakistani behaviour.
Over the years, this tacit American condoning of Pakistani duplicity produced considerable anxiety in New Delhi. As India gradually set its sight on cultivating ties with the United States after a prolonged period of estrangement during the Cold War, America’s ambivalence towards Pakistani duplicity fuelled Indian reluctance -- even long after erstwhile motivations of maintaining Indian ‘strategic autonomy’ waned. From US interests’ stand-point, this meant a sluggish courtship of India -- wherein India did not “necessarily welcome every overture for cooperation from the United States” even as frustrations rose in Washington over its “bending over backward to help India.”
Under Trump, the continued relevance of the aforementioned three-pronged objective is not lost. Moreover, at first, it seemed the Trump administration was set to find itself in the same continuum of bungling Afghanistan, condoning Pakistan, and assuaging Indian reluctance. However, a year since the announcement of the New South Asia strategy, an attempt to break from that recurrent continuum has been evident. At least on two of the three accounts -- with respect to Pakistan and India, the Trump administration has spurred a break from the past.
On Pakistan, the Trump administration has raked up the employment of the economic lever to address Pakistani duplicity. Under Trump, in July all CSF payments were held back, and in 2018 the same was cut by $700 million. Further, in the run-up to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford’s visit to Pakistan last month, the Pentagon announced that it intended to permanently cut earlier suspended funds worth $300 million. Most notably earlier this year, the Trump administration welcomed the grey-listing of Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force owing to its “outstanding counterterrorism deficiencies”.
Although challenges remain -- like Pakistan’s nearing balance-of-payments crisis raising the prospect of a Chinese bailout at the cost of diminished American influence -- the chips may eventually fall in Washington’s favour. As recent reports suggest, there is a “bottom-up push in Pakistan to revise the terms of engagement” on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The same stems from a region-wide re-evaluation being “underway of China’s involvement in local economies” -- with the case of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port being a central catalyst in spurring scepticism. Thus, Rawalpindi may rationally choose to deal with the devil they know -- with acquiescence to the US demands as reflected in the earlier discussed statement by Pakistan’s foreign minister Qureshi and Pompeo, and not with the one they don’t -- being wary of Chinese debt-trap diplomacy.
On India, a simple perusal of the Indo-US dynamic under Trump reflects Indian reluctance to have been relatively assuaged. Despite the Trump administration’s contention over the United States running a trade deficit with India, the Indo-US bilateral trade in 2017 was estimated to touch $140 billion from $118 billion in 2016 -- inching towards the Obama era goal of $500 billion. Further, in recognition of India’s elevated status in the American security calculus in the region, the Trump administration rechristened the US Pacific Command headquartered in Hawaii to the Indo-Pacific Command. Most importantly, on matters pertaining to defence interoperability, the Indo-US dynamic under Trump has borne an equally reciprocal attitude from New Delhi. For instance, recently the United States and India inked the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) -- the third of four foundational defence agreements. Other such developments include, setting up of hotlines between both countries’ defence and foreign ministers, announcement of the first-ever Indo-US tri-service exercise in 2019, expressing either side’s readiness to begin discussions on the Industrial Security Annex (ISA), and committing to start exchanges between the US Naval Forces Central Command and the Indian Navy.
Although challenges remain -- like India’s historic ties with powers like Russia being incompatible with the Trump administration’s call for the return of ‘great power competition’. Surely, a defining test of the same is India’s decision to acquire the S-400 missile defence system from Russia possibly triggering US sanctions -- in accordance with the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). However, in gradually assuaging Indian reluctance, the Trump administration has indeed made unprecedented strides in its ties with India -- especially in the defence interoperability domain.
Finally, with respect to Afghanistan as well, there seems to be an attempt to break from the past. Most notably, the Trump administration broke from long-standing US foreign policy precedent of not directly engaging with the Taliban. In July 2018, it was reported that US officials held talks with Taliban representatives in Qatar. Hopes for a diplomatic resolution also grew when the Afghan government and the Taliban observed a successful cease-fire during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr.
However, shortly thereafter, it was apparent that the Trump administration found itself in a position -- hardly unique from its predecessor administrations’ predicaments. The aforementioned departures in Trump’s strategy vis-à-vis Afghanistan have not been successful as the Afghan government controls or influences 229 of 407 districts, the Taliban controls 59 and the remaining 119 districts continue to remain contested. As a result, there has been a stalemate with the Taliban as on-ground tactical advances are still being challenged by continual attacks -- like the one in Ghazni that left 70 policemen dead in a matter of three days. Serious questions have thus emerged over the capabilities of the US-trained local Afghan forces. The same has probably prompted the Trump administration to stick to its no “time-based” approach in Afghanistan and even consider privatising the effort with military contractors.
Hence, the Trump administration’s policies in South Asia bear semblance to the past administrations’ policies with respect to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. However, the Trump administration seems to have partly broken away from the subsequent continuum. The departure is apparent on two fronts -- with respect to India and Pakistan. The administration’s hands-on approach to address Pakistani duplicity -- with economic coercion, and oversee unprecedented developments in the Indo-US dynamic -- in the realm of defence interoperability, stand as the central cases-in-point.
Afghanistan, however, continues to be the proverbial stone in the Trumpian shoe -- with the prospect of further US entrenchment in the Afghan quagmire looming large. Thus, in the days to come, the Trump administration’s actions vis-à-vis the United States’ ‘forever war’ will determine the novelty of Trump’s New South Asia strategy.
The author is a research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in Mumbai. His research interests are US Grand Strategy, US Civil-Military Relations, & US Foreign Policy in the Asia-Pacific.
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