Joe Biden’s razzle-dazzle inauguration as US President — Hollywood out in full force, the fireworks — is harbinger of normalcy, which was distinguished by its absence in the last four years of Donald Trump’s occupation of the White House when American policy, because impulsive, and often whimsical, became unpredictable enough to destabilise the world. While a return of normal is, therefore, to be welcomed, for Indo-US relations it meansWashington’s reverting to traditional balancing act however much the incoming American Administration might protest there’s no going back to a rehyphenation of India and Pakistan in the US scheme for South Asia in the future.
If there was any doubt, it was removed by retired Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the US-Secretary of State-deignate at his confirmation hearings in the US Senate yesterday. Pakistan, he asserted, “is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan [and] will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan.” Further, indicating he has bought fully into Islamabad’s position he commended Pakistan for taking “constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process. Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, although this progress is incomplete”. He added, as an afterthought, that “I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbors like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process.”
This warning to Delhi against interfering in the so-called peace process in Afghanistan couldn’t be clearer. This is the reason why I had said in the last post that NSA Ajit Doval’s recent semi-secret trip to Kabul would evince US demands for an explanation. Here the Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh’s straightforward take on Doval’s quick turnround flight to confer with the Ashraf Ghani regime, that he “Had a pleasant meeting with NSA Ajit Doval of India. We discussed the enemy. It was an in-depth discussion”, may initiate a contentious discussion with the US.
By way of a sop to Delhi, Austin in a pro forma fashion mentioned he “will press Pakistan” to prevent its territory from being used by militants or other violent organisations” and said he would continue to build relationships with Pakistani military to “provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues”.
In my December 12 post (“Panda panderers at State and Pentagon”) I had flagged just why Austin, the four star general who retired as commander-in-chief, US Central Command in-charge of the US military in Afghanistan, and soon to be US Defence Secretary, owing to his long association during his theatre command with General Qamar Bajwa and his cohort, would naturally tilt towards Pakistan.
Austin also indicated that punitive measures against Pakistan would be off the table, saying “many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama attack.” It is hardly to be wondered then that Islamabad is ecstatic with these new developments, with high Pakistani officials talking about the situation for the first time “advantaging” Pakistan and, hence, moving quickly to setup a formal high-level meeting with the now suddenly more empathetic regime in Washington.
What’s important to note is that the “head in the sand” approach of the Indian media resulted in no major newspaper or outlet reporting Austin’s testimony at his confirmation hearings. One can only hope the Indian embassy in Washington and Modi’s MEA are not, likewise, in ostrich mode, and are aware about just how bad things can actually get for Delhi, and have begun working on counters. Such as repairing the frayed relations with Moscow and cultivating Russia as counterweight on priority basis. And keeping India’s hand warm in Afghanistan’s affairs in the manner that Doval has been doing, and include in the menu for the Ghani government ramped up transfers of military hardware — longrange guns, ammunition, and attack helicopters.
For starters, America at the UN Financial Assistance Task Force meetings in Paris will be less insistent about getting Pakistan on the ‘Black, list’. So the pressure on General Qamar Bajwa’s GHQ, Rawalpindi, to ease off on cross-border terrorism will be considerably lessened.
Much worse, Austin has articulated a more cautious approach to Asia, calling on the US government to show “strategic patience” with China. So, it is not just India, but all of America’s traditional allies and strategic partners — Japan, South Korea, Philippines, Singapore, and even Indonesia which’s on the cusp of partnering the US, who need to worry, because accommodating Beijing could mean Washington cutting myopic narrowly self-serving deals with Xi Jinping.
The immediate effect of these new wrinkles in US policy will be the definite activation of India’s two fronts. Not sure the Modi government is prepared for it.