Reading Donald Trump’s choices in South Asia
US national security adviser Herbert Raymond McMaster was in South Asia this week and he managed to send some signals about Washington’s priorities. In what was the first formal high-level exchange between the US and Pakistan under the Donald Trump administration, McMaster reviewed efforts aimed at stabilizing neighbouring Afghanistan and conveyed a strong message to Pakistani officials that there is an urgent “need to confront terrorism in all its forms”. He was categorical in his assessment of Pakistani complicity in destabilizing Afghanistan when he underscored that “as all of us have hoped for many, many years, we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past and the best way to pursue their interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through diplomacy, not through the use of proxies that engage in violence”.
There is no clarity yet on what form a new Afghanistan policy will take under the Trump administration. Though there have been calls by military commanders for adding “several thousand” troops to the 8,400 US forces already in Afghanistan so as to break the stalemate with the Taliban, a decision on the troop level is yet to come. Days after he authorized a US missile strike against a Syrian government airbase, Trump consented to the dropping of the GBU-43/B massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) bomb, nicknamed the “mother of all bombs”, on a network of fortified underground tunnels that the Islamic State (IS) had been using to stage attacks on Afghan government forces in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistan border. At least 94 IS fighters have reportedly been killed in this strike which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani approved of and which was designed to support Afghan and US forces conducting clearance operations in the region.
McMaster’s visit to South Asia is aimed at familiarizing the new administration with the regional landscape as the Trump administration charts its own course. One aspect which is now clear is that Pakistan will be watched carefully in how it follows through on its commitments. McMaster has indicated that Washington views the strengthening of Afghan security forces and political institutions as key to the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan even as there is a need to defeat the Taliban, except those who “are willing to join their Afghan brothers and sisters... and end the violence”.
McMaster’s visit was also an opportunity for New Delhi to get a sense of the emerging contours of the Trump administration’s South Asia policy. It must have been reassuring for New Delhi that in his interactions with India’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, McMaster underlined the importance of US-India strategic relations and also reiterated Washington’s commitment to treat India as its major defence partner. There have been some confusing signals from the US in recent weeks despite Trump’s outreach to India and Prime Minister Modi. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, had suggested recently that the Trump administration was concerned about tension between India and Pakistan and would not wait for something to happen. She said the US might offer to mediate between India and Pakistan to “de-escalate” tensions and even President Trump might come forward to play an active role. India swiftly dismissed Haley’s offer, saying it was India’s official position that the Kashmir issue could only be resolved through bilateral efforts and that it was Pakistan’s support for cross-border terrorism which is not allowing the dialogue process to commence. The US state department later clarified that there had been no change in America’s South Asia policy that Kashmir is a bilateral matter between India and Pakistan.
What this back and forth has underscored is that the Trump administration has yet to think carefully about its South Asia priorities. And so McMaster’s visit was key for New Delhi to not only chart a closer counter-terror agenda with Washington but also to work together on regional stability. This becomes particularly important at a time when regional equations are changing dramatically. Russia has revamped its South Asia policy in recent months with a major outreach to Pakistan and is stepping forward as a power broker in Afghanistan, its former stomping ground. With the help of its newfound strategic partner China, Russia intends to checkmate the US’ regional pre-eminence.
This shift in Russian stance is also evident in the role that it envisions for itself in Afghanistan, coming almost four decades after the 1979 Soviet invasion of the country. Russia hosted a conference on Afghanistan’s future last week with participation from India, Iran, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan among others, where it offered to mediate between the Taliban and the Ghani government. This was Russia’s third initiative after the first trilateral conference in December, including only China and Pakistan. Surprising Kabul and New Delhi, the December conference agreed upon “a flexible approach to remove certain (Taliban) figures from (UN) sanctions lists as part of efforts to foster a peaceful dialogue between Kabul and the Taliban movement”.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (Nato’s) supreme allied commander in Europe, General Curtis Scaparrotti, recently warned that he had “seen the influence of Russia of late—increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban”. McMaster has called upon regional countries, including Russia and Pakistan, not to support the Taliban in their bid to “perpetuate the very long war” in Afghanistan.
So the battle lines are being drawn and New Delhi needs to brace itself if its growing stakes in Afghanistan and regional stability are to be preserved. McMaster’s visit has proved that with all their compulsions, Washington and New Delhi remain on the same page in tackling Afghanistan’s problems. But these are still early days.
Harsh V. Pant is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and professor of international relations at King’s College, London.