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India’s choices as America ‘asks’

The government will have to take a call, and quick, on how to engage with the U.S. on Afghanistan

April 29, 2017 12:02 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST

During his inaugural address in January 1961, U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously asked his fellow Americans: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” In 2017, it is a question that U.S. President Donald Trump is posing to the world, as he begins to set his imprint on American foreign policy.

In the past few weeks, the one campaign promise Mr. Trump’s actions have held fast to is “America First” and to make every other country “pay its dues”. As a result, he has backed away from his earlier tough position on declaring China a “currency manipulator” after his meeting with President Xi Jinping, but the quid pro quo is clear: China must rein in North Korea, particularly its plans for a nuclear test.

Asked to pay up

Mr. Trump’s decision to dispatch Vice President Mike Pence, Defence Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to meet allies in Europe and Asia was received with a sense of relief after worries that he would retrench America’s presence globally. But the message of reassurance came with a rider, as Mr. Trump met NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg this month and then with Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and stressed the need for NATO allies to “pay what they owe”, 2% of their GDP, for security. Similar messages were pressed home to Japan, South Korea and Australia.

Despite bombing a Syrian airbase, as reprisal for what it said was a chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, America’s engagement in the region hasn’t increased either. Mr. Trump’s meetings with Egyptian, Jordanian and Turkish leaders all contained a common demand: that each of their countries step up its fight to counter the Islamic State (IS) in the region. Security Council representatives visiting the White House this week were reminded that the U.S. pays for 22% of the UN’s budget and almost 30% for UN peacekeeping. Mr. Trump termed this “unfair”.

It is in this context that last week’s visit to the region by U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster must be studied.

To begin with, the timing of the visit seemed linked to the bombing of what the U.S. Army claimed were hideouts of IS-Khorasan (IS-K) terrorists in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, using what they crudely referred to as the “mother of all bombs” (MOAB), the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast bomb.

Those hoping the bombing meant the U.S. was now showing an interest in its commitment to security in Afghanistan hoped too early, as the bombing has not been followed by any clarification of U.S. strategy. Instead, once the dust settles in Nangarhar, and the U.S. reverts control of the areas pounded by the largest non-nuclear weapon in the American arsenal, a closer analysis of what was achieved will be necessary. If anything, bombing IS-K targets at that time took the focus away from the Taliban, which then carried out their single most deadly attack on the Afghan Army in the past decade and a half at the Mazar-e-Sharif military base.

Cost-benefit analyses

Setting aside the MOAB debate, however, Gen. McMaster’s visit to Kabul, Islamabad and New Delhi fits into the pattern of the Trump administration’s foreign policy mantra: Ask not what the U.S. can do for Afghanistan, he is understood to have told his interlocutors, ask what you can do for the U.S. in Afghanistan.

Even in his apparently rough dealings with the Pakistani generals, Gen. McMaster pushed for action against groups operating in Afghanistan, avoiding the language of the Obama administration, that included the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad in their public comments on Pakistan. It would be safe to assume that given the pattern of the past few weeks, the question “ask not…” will also be put in far clearer terms by Mr. Trump to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he visits the White House, as he is expected to later this summer.

For India, then, the challenge is twofold: to decide not just what, if anything, it is prepared to do to help the U.S. in security and peacekeeping efforts in Afghanistan, but also what it would like to see in clear terms in return. The former has been debated in hushed tones since September 2015, when Mr. Obama is understood to have asked India for a commitment on defence participation in Afghanistan.

While “boots on the ground” leads to instant recoil in India, and even the Afghan government has repeatedly said it does not require any more foreign presence, there are other ways India is going to be asked to contribute: from providing defence equipment, to training soldiers in Afghanistan (as opposed to in India, where at present capacity, only about 300 Afghan soldiers are being trained), as well as technical teams on the ground to repair and maintain military hardware.

From the American perspective, given the growing attrition of Afghan Army forces and uptick in violence in 2016, the need for more assistance from India is clear. As a western diplomat said recently, “Mr. Modi must know that his meeting with Mr. Trump is a ‘Yes or No’ moment. If it is Yes, he will have to deliver quickly. If it is No, that too will have deep consequences.” Hedging in the manner Delhi was earlier able to do over joint patrols in the Indo-Pacific may no longer be an option.

Fast-forward on pacts

Apart from Afghanistan, it is also clear that defence ties will drive the India-U.S. relationship for the foreseeable future. The U.S. wants India to move quickly on the other ‘foundational agreements’, the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-spatial Cooperation as India completes formalities for the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement this week.

On hardware too, there will be the “ask”, as the U.S. looks for Indian defence purchases, and “America First” clashes with “Make in India” about where that hardware will be built. India’s concerns on tightening H-1B visas will be met with the American demand that Indian multinational corporations and tech companies operating in the U.S. hire more Americans and give more concessions on trade and intellectual property rights. It is unclear whether India’s demands for American heavy-lifting on the Nuclear Suppliers Group membership issue this June or on climate change financing will be taken very seriously given Mr. Trump’s other preoccupations.

In the face of this altered pattern of engagement that India must navigate with the new America, then, Mr. Modi has limited options ahead of his meeting with Mr. Trump: to coast along and ride out the impending storm of demands, or to reject the transactionalism inherent in these “asks from America” and steer his own course. In Afghanistan in particular, India must bolster its bilateral delivery on defence assistance, rather than be co-opted in the U.S.’s plans which frequently change according to its own cost-benefit analysis. In so doing, India may also recover some of the equilibrium in its ties with other world powers that have seemed more distant in recent years.

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