This is the age of trilaterals . From Indo-Pacific to the European hinterland, trilaterals in all shapes and forms are emerging by the day. India too has taken to this diplomatic tool with gusto. One trilateral endeavour shows that Indian diplomatic heft is growing even in its immediate vicinity. India has long struggled to make the world, and especially the US, recognize its key role in Afghanistan. This now seems to be changing. And as New Delhi seems intent on tightening the screws on Pakistan post-Uri, Afghanistan has also acquired a new salience.

On the sidelines of the UN general assembly’s 71st annual session, India, the US and Afghanistan met last week to exchange views on the situation in Afghanistan and on “regional issues of mutual interest". The three states underscored their shared interest in combating terrorism and advancing peace and security in the region even as they explored ways to “coordinate and align" assistance with the priorities of the Afghan government in the war-torn country.

India and the US decided to relaunch this trilateral engagement during the second India-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue in New Delhi last month. Though it was in existence even earlier, the US did not really put its weight behind the engagement for fear of annoying Pakistan. It was discontinued in 2013 largely because of this indifference.

The rejuvenation of this trilateral engagement comes at a time when India-Pakistan ties have hit their nadir and its diplomatic isolation is causing consternation in the Pakistani establishment. Pakistan’s ties with Afghanistan are also at their worst ever. In fact, speaking at the general assembly, Afghanistan’s vice-president, Sarwar Danesh, came down heavily on Pakistan for supporting terror groups. Slamming the country for providing safe havens to terrorists, he underlined Pakistan’s “undeclared war" on its people by plotting “merciless" terror attacks and training and financing groups like the Taliban and the Haqqani network. “Taliban and Haqqani network are trained, equipped and financed there," he said, adding that Pakistan has a dual policy of discriminating between what it views as “good and bad terrorists".

This is the line that India has long taken and after the Uri attack, it was the Afghan government which first suggested that South Asian states should come together to boycott the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) summit in Islamabad. That is exactly what India has now decided to do with support also from Bhutan and Bangladesh.

There is also growing frustration in Washington at Pakistan’s duplicitous role in South Asia. During his meeting with Pakistan’s prime minister, the US secretary of state, John Kerry, widely seen as sympathetic to Pakistani concerns, made it clear that the onus is on Pakistan “to prevent all terrorists from using Pakistani territory as safe havens". More significant from the perspective of long-term US-Pakistan ties, is the new Bill, HR 6069 or the Pakistan State Sponsor of Terrorism Designation Act, which has been introduced in the US Congress, aimed at designating Pakistan as a state sponsor of terror. In a damning indictment of Pakistani shenanigans, Congressman Ted Poe highlighted that “not only is Pakistan an untrustworthy ally, Islamabad has also aided and abetted enemies of the United States for years. From harbouring Osama bin Laden to its cozy relationship with the Haqqani network, there is more than enough evidence to determine whose side Pakistan is on in the War on Terror. And it’s not America’s."

One of the biggest setbacks to US-Pakistan ties since the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad in a US raid was the US drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour on Pakistani soil. It underscored in Washington Pakistan’s continuing unreliability in managing Afghanistan’s security. The Barack Obama administration has in recent months recalibrated and taken an overtly pro-India stance on Afghanistan. It has refused to certify for the US Congress that Pakistan has taken adequate steps to fight the Haqqani network, leading to the cancellation of defence subsidies to Pakistan.

In a remarkable shift in Washington’s policy of asking India to refrain from military support to Kabul, it is now publicly asking New Delhi to help arm Afghan forces. This is in support of Afghan demands for more technical and military assistance from Delhi.

Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani government has come to recognize that Pakistan will not play ball in bringing stability to Afghanistan. The quadrilateral coordination group of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan and the US on Afghan peace and reconciliation failed to take the peace process further due to Pakistani intransigence. Now Kabul wants to fight it out with the backing of Washington and New Delhi. And the Narendra Modi government seems more than willing to lend a hand to a partner which is also facing hostility from Pakistan. This is in sync with its priorities at the moment to isolate Pakistan globally and regionally.

The renewed trilateral engagement will work only if there is a sustained momentum towards deliverable outcomes. The Pakistani military-intelligence apparatus will do its best to scupper this initiative and will lash out in response to its growing marginalization. It will try to show its relevance by wreaking more havoc in Afghanistan and the region. The regional states should prepare for the worst even as they work towards a more coordinated response vis-à-vis Pakistan.

Harsh V. Pant is professor of international relations at King’s College, London, and distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

Close