India would do better to assert, but not ignore, its US opportunity


India’s US policy is suddenly on test. Never in these Donald Trump years has India felt vulnerable in terms of security. The tussle has usually been over trade figures, Harley-Davidsons, digital commerce and, at times, the feed that American cows get. But never really on core security issues, especially Pakistan.

The situation has dramatically changed in the last few months. The Trump government wants Pakistan to broker a dialogue with the Taliban, so that the US can reduce its troops in Afghanistan. The last time something similar happened was two years ago.

In February 2016, the Barack Obama administration had cleared the sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan. The White House justified the proposal to underwrite the $699 million deal as necessary to provide the Pakistan Air Force with an all-weather capability to operate in Afghanistan. This was exactly a year after Obama had visited India as Republic Day chief guest.

India rushed in the messages, emphasised how Pakistan did not intend to use these capabilities against the Taliban but train them on India. It didn’t work. New Delhi then broadened its approach, mustered support from the US Congress and other stakeholders. The White House faced stiff opposition, until it shelved the idea of selling the F-16s. Obama, it’s believed, was quite upset by the manner in which India had sidestepped the White House. But then, India had to find away to drag the issue till the US presidential elections, and prevailed.

New Delhi has benefited immensely from the fact that its view on Pakistan as the principal abettor of terrorism has aligned better with Trump than any other US president. Most of Trump’s predecessors first tried their hand at comforting and convincing Pakistan, before making a course correction.

Trump, on the other hand, started from the opposite end. Which is why India never had to worry about what the US may think if New Delhi carried out cross-Line of Control (LoC) strikes and made it public. In fact, the US under Trump has encouraged India to take on more military responsibility in Afghanistan. Which also explains Trump’s recent snide remark about India ‘building a library’ in Afghanistan.

Being Kabullish

The problem, however, is Trump’s electoral promise of reducing troops in conflict zones like Afghanistan. While this may clash with the global strategic posture the Pentagon wants to maintain, the truth is that India knows that a US drawdown from Afghanistan is not a matter of ‘if ’ but ‘when’. In fairness, Trump and some of his now former aides like John McMaster and James Mattis have been urging India to increase its security footprint in Afghanistan.

India has also responded. It has given combat choppers, paid for the repair of old Soviet-era equipment in Afghanistan, and trained Afghan military personnel. There’s always scope for more. But it’s suffice to say that away from the glare, India’s security establishment has accelerated its work in Afghanistan over the past couple of years.

So, what’s the worry? The need to counter Pakistan’s newly found leverage with Washington, or at least to delay it. Trump has decided to explore the possibility of ‘workable peace’ with the Taliban against a body of advice. And to achieve that, Pakistan is vital. Trump’s Afghan-origin envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is on the job, building fresh equations with the new Pakistan government, its military and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Any Pakistan-brokered peace with the Taliban is expected to be short-lived. But that’s unlikely to deter Trump’s domestic considerations. In many ways, it’s a high stakes political manoeuvre, in which Pakistan will be looking for big gains.

Let’s not forget that Pakistan today has a bigger F-16 problem. Not only does it want more of them, but it’s also in desperate need of spares for its existing fleet of 15. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have loosened their purse strings — $6 billion and $3 billion respectively — in the last three months. Islamabad will also step up pressure for direct US assistance, as well as International Monetary Fund (IMF) support.

The usual South Block reflex is to use the opportunity to counterbalance the US with Russia and China. That’s unlikely to work. Trump has already positioned himself aggressively on China, which is aligned with India’s strategic priorities. A shift requires sharp tactical responses both in and with Washington. This may be the appropriate time to underline national interests, and make payments for the S-400 missile defence system to Russia. And, by the same logic, push for defence co-production with the US, especially on the F-16s for which, at one stage, the Trump government was willing to relocate the entire supply chain to India, the line to Pakistan included.

Ahem, Here to Help

In short, South Block has its task cut out. The easy path would be to paint the US as unreliable on Pakistan and Trump as unpredictable. But that will shrink India to a bit player.

India may want to take a leaf out of Japan’s book, where Shinzo Abe is set to firm up a $50-55 billion defence package with the US that includes 100 F-35s. India doesn’t have to take Trump literally, but seriously enough to re-orbit its positioning in a world that’s moving towards fresh conflict and less order.

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