A new trajectory

A new trajectory
Ahead of the first official visit to India of US Secretary of Defence James Mattis in late September, the Pentagon had underlined that “the secretary will emphasise that the United States views India as a valued and influential partner, with broad mutual interests extending well beyond South Asia” and “will also express US appreciation for India’s important contributions toward Afghanistan’s democracy, stability, prosperity, and security.”

The Pentagon’s statement was a clear reflection of how dramatically America’s views had changed when it came to India’s role in Afghanistan. For long, Washington did not want a high-profile role for India in Afghanistan for fear of offending Pakistani sensitivities.

India’s engagement in Afghanistan grew despite America’s preferences. But as India emerged a serious economic player in Afghanistan and Pakistan continued with its destabilising activities, Washington had to recognise that New Delhi’s role in Kabul is a net positive one. As a result, the Trump administration, while announcing its new Afghan policy, asked India to do more to help Afghanistan with its development needs.

An important part of Trump’s engagement in the region is his outreach to India, with the President saying that a “critical part” of his administration’s South Asia policy is to further develop the US’ strategic partnership with India. “We appreciate India’s important contributions to stability in Afghanistan, but India makes billions of dollars in trade with the US, and we want them to help us more with Afgh­anistan, especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” Trump had said, underlining America’s new desire that India step up its role in Afghanistan.

In line with this, Mattis engaged with his Indian interlocutors on how to synergise US and Indian efforts in stabilising Afghanistan. Mattis’s visit coincided with the Indo-Afghan trade and investment show, which is facilitated by the Ministry of External Affairs and USAID. It saw the participation of Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and other ministers in New Delhi last week. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani has said the Taliban and Pakistan are responsible for instability and war in his country. Ghani has made it clear that despite his attempts to reach out to Pakistan many times, the latter did not respond to his initiatives for peace. In India, Mattis reaffirmed that “there can be no tolerance of terrorist safe havens anywhere” and underlined that both the US and India have suffered “grievous losses” due to terrorism.

New Delhi, meanwhile, has stepped up its engagement with Kabul with its plans to train Afghan police officers along with Afghan soldiers. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made it clear that while India won’t be putting boots on the ground, it will be enhancing its ongoing security, economic and development assistance to Afghanistan.

India’s agenda is to build capacity of the Afghan security forces, enabling them to fight their own battles more effectively. This is in line with the requirements of the Afghan government as well as the international community. India has decided to take up 116 “high impact community development projects” in 31 provinces of Afghanistan. Pakistan Prime Minister S K Abbasi’s recent statement that India has “zero political and military role” in Afghanistan has little meaning when the Afghan government and its global supporters want an intensified engagement by India. And India is signalling that it intends to play its role without taking cognisance of Pakistani shenanigans.

The other element of Mattis’s visit has been a focus on the Indo-US defence engagement. Defence ties have been growing rapidly between the two countries and have been one of the most important factors propelling the relationship. The US Congress had passed an amendment in December 2016 called “Enhancing Defence and Security Cooperation with India,” which conferred on India the status of America’s “major defence partner,” a designation which was reaffirmed by the Trump administration during the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US earlier this year.

The US already conducts the maximum number of bilateral military exercises with India, including the Malabar series which has now taken a trilateral structure with Japan being a permanent invitee. The ambitious Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) remains the key platform to elevate the Indo-US defence relationship from a buyer-seller engagement to a partnership model, working to co-develop and produce key defence technologies.

Mattis said the designation of India as a major defence partner reflected the recognition of India as a “pillar of regional stability and security.” Doing away with the reticence of the past, Mattis asserted that the US was looking forward to “sharing some of our most advanced defence technologies” with India.

The Trump administration is interested in selling F-18 and F-16 fighter planes to India, built by American companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin respectively. Both companies have offered to assemble these planes in India as part of Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign. More significant is the sale of 22 Sea Guardian unmanned aerial systems, which was announced during Modi’s visit to the US earlier this year. With this deal, the India Navy will not only acquire the world’s most advanced maritime reconnaissance drone, but it will also lead to greater sharing of defence technology. Against the backdrop of a rising China, the two countries have also reiterated the critical importance of freedom of navigation, overflight and unimpeded lawful commerce in the global commons.

Both Trump and Modi have made strong counter terror policies cornerstones of their foreign policies. The two nations are looking to evolve a robust counter-terror partnership by cooperating on areas as wide ranging as providing border technologies, enhancing intelligence exchanges as well as greater technical support by the US to Indian law enforcement agencies.

Mattis, a long-time friend of India, has sent out all the right signals about the priorities of the Trump administration. It remains to be seen how these aspirations will be operationalised at a time when Washington is grappling with multiple domestic and global challenges.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)

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