Sep 09, 2018
Mao Keji: US tilts toward India in shifting South Asia policy
However, the current situation risks polarizing the regional order in which Washington looms as a condescending and partisan actor which Pakistan hates to engage even in times of crisis.
Mao Keji: US tilts toward India in shifting South Asia policy

It seems that the US' South Asia policy has witnessed significant developments in the past few weeks. On the one hand Washington announced it would cancel $300 million in military assistance to Pakistan and named Zalmay Khalilzad, a long-time critic of Pakistan, as a special envoy to Afghanistan. On the other Washington signed with New Delhi a long-due major military communications agreement which allows them to closely coordinate on a compatible network just like the US and its closest allies do.

According to the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy, the Trump administration recently indicated that Washington's strategic focus has shifted from dealing with global terrorism to managing major power rivalries. So, when it comes to its South Asia policy, this sea change in concept has also been materialized into concrete policy options toward both Pakistan and India: Pakistan can no longer enjoy a special status like it did during the war on terror, whereas India, sharing common anxieties against a rising China with the US, assumes new importance on Washington's radar screen.

As a result of Washington's strategic focus shift, the US-Pakistan relationship has been troubled for some time. In his first talk about South Asian policy in August 2017, Trump went so far as to openly denounce Pakistan as the "safe havens" for terrorist organizations. Again, Trump's very first tweet in 2018 was a surprising and scathing attack on Pakistan, accusing the country of providing "nothing but lies and deceit" in return for multi-billion US aid over past 15 or so years. Since then, Washington suspended more than $1.1 billion in security assistance to Pakistan. The final cancellation of $300 million assistance announced on September 1 was actually part of Coalition Support Funds which had been suspended initially at the beginning of the year.

In the post-9/11 era, the US offered billions of dollars to Pakistan in order to support counterterrorism mission against Al Qaeda, to operationalize robust intelligence cooperation and to equip Pakistani army with the capacity to target militants from all around. But, as Al-Qaeda has been decimated over time and threat from other radical groups have grown, Washington found its aid to Pakistan increasingly hard to justify.

The focus of the struggle has been the terrorist groups. While the US and Afghanistan accuse Pakistan of offering sanctuary to Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, Islamabad categorically denies the charges and emphasizes that it has acted indiscriminately against all armed groups on its soil, turning to accuse Kabul of allowing elements in the Pakistani Taliban to operate in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan.

While the transactional nature of US-Pakistani relationship has indeed been discovered and discussed, Trump, whose characteristics have been best illustrated in his book The Art of the Deal, simply exacerbates the situation by more transactional moves. The situation is rather clear now: with rapidly shrinking strategic common ground between Washington and Islamabad, bilateral relations are increasingly reduced to one single issue—Afghanistan. And, the issue of Afghanistan seems transactional and tactical rather than strategic. What now concerns Washington the most is settling the Afghan conflict after 17 years of painful attrition. To win the war in Afghanistan, Washington needs Islamabad for supply routes and to negotiate a lasting settlement and peace, meaning that neither side can afford to snap relations.

Even if Washington needs Islamabad to carry on their cooperation when it comes to the Afghanistan issue, the former, under the Machiavellian Trump administration, seemingly minds little if it approaches India at Pakistan's expense, be it security and diplomatic. The cancellation of $300 million assistance was announced just days ahead of the expected visits to Islamabad and New Delhi by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, tellingly demonstrating not only the hectoring bully the US imposed on Pakistan, but also the designed maneuver to reassure, if not please, India.

The critical timing suggests that the US might well use the aid cancellation to signal to India that it is willing to take tougher measures to "induce" better behavior in India's regional rival. Following the explicit tilt toward New Delhi, Trump has also called on India to play a larger role in Afghanistan, while his predecessors had largely discouraged India from assuming a significant security role there for fear of offending Pakistan's political sensibilities.

As Joshua White, former director for South Asian affairs at the National Security Council insightfully observes, the history of the US-Pakistan relationship is one filled with mutual disappointments, mutual dependencies, as well as mutual understanding that neither country benefits from a sustained rupture in ties. However, the current situation risks polarizing the regional order in which Washington looms as a condescending and partisan actor which Pakistan hates to engage even in times of crisis.

Mao Keji: Research Fellow, Indian Studies Center, Pangoal Institution.■

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