Some Thoughts on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Visit to South Asia

One of the major assignments of any secretary of state is to travel abroad extensively to project American policies and promote American interests. The media had noted some time ago about a former secretary of state Gen. Colin Powell as being one of the least overseas-travelled officials in the cabinet of George W. Bush. In contrast, Hillary Clinton working for the same position under President Obama travelled abroad widely and frequently. So did her successor John Kerry.

Rex Tillerson comes to the state department with an impressive record of corporate leadership earned as the chief executive officer of the huge oil and gas company ExxonMobil. Tillerson therefore knows a number of influential people in many countries where Exxon was operational, particularly in the oil and gas rich regions of the Middle East. Along with his boss Donald Trump, Tillerson has been involved in resolving the spat in the GCC with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt ganging up against Qatar. The charge against the latter is that it supports terrorism and is allegedly cozying up to Iran. Interestingly, whereas an earlier meeting in Riyadh in June, Trump who is much more of a neophyte in foreign affairs compared to Tillerson, had put the blame for the GCC fracas squarely on Qatar. There appears to be a change of heart in Washington as Tillerson is reported to have largely blamed Saudi Arabia and its allies for the continuing political and economic blockade of the tiny but hugely affluent Qatar.

Are Trump and Tillerson on the same page on some major foreign policy issues? This is an open question. On a number of occasions Trump’s tweets have contradicted the positions adopted by Tillerson particularly on the USA’s brewing contretemps with North Korea. On the latter, Trump told Tillerson dismissively that he (Tillerson) was “wasting his time” in exploring a diplomatic solution to the US’ dangerous impasse with North Korea. Given Tillerson’s exposure to the wider world, one would imagine that Trump would utilize the former’s expertise. However, according to the general feeling among the commentariat, Trump’s narcissistic persona stands in the way of allowing his senior most foreign policy official to run with the ball.On North Korea a diplomatic approach appears to be the only viable way to avoid a nuclear war.Let’s hope Tillerson is continuing to pursue the diplomatic option despite his President’s tweet.

On his current diplomatic tour apart from visiting Riyadh, Doha, and Baghdad, Tillerson paid lightning visits to Kabul, Islamabad, and New Delhi. Apparently only New Delhi was favored with an overnight stopover whereas Kabul and Islamabad got only a few hours of Tillerson’s time. The meetings of Tillerson with Indian officials Modi and Swaraj were apparently held in a cordial atmosphere. The Indian media emphasized that the necessity to curb terrorism in the region was a major point of discussion between the two sides.

Tillerson’s meeting with President Ghani of Afghanistan was held in the heavily fortified military base, Bagram, outside Kabul. Some media taking note of this meeting held in a “bunker” opined that it was emblematic of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan. No fresh ideas appeared to have been publicized at the end of the meeting by the two sides, except the criticism heaped on Pakistan once more for sheltering ‘terrorists”. Trump had earlier after exhaustive exchanges with his generals decided to send extra American troops to Afghanistan to help the Ghani government against Taliban onslaughts, which appear to be on the uptick. No further details about these troops was publicly revealed after the Ghani-Tillerson parley.

Tillerson visited Islamabad after detouring to Iraq and then alighting in Pakistan. The Pakistani media made much of the fact that this time around, the Secretary was received by a “middle level official” of the Pakistan foreign office. Previous American dignitaries had been accorded a much higher level of protocol courtesies. The present protocol arrangements could possibly be interpreted as registering a downturn in the relationship between Pakistan -which is still hanging on to its designation as a “major non-NATO ally” -and the US. The encouraging fact is that while the ”do more” mantra was once again repeated by Tillerson to Prime Minister Khaqani and the Chief of Army Staff Bajwa, the overall atmospherics of the meeting were more cordial compared to the vitriolic anti-Pakistan Trump outburst of last August. The two sides have apparently disagreed once again on the presence of terrorists particularly the Haqqani network in Pakistan’s tribal areas which Pakistan denies. According to the new Pakistani Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif, the US has failed to pacify Afghanistan after long years of warfare. Asif thinks the American generals in Afghanistan are scapegoating Pakistan for the former’s failure to win against their Taliban enemies. The fact of the matter is that US and Pakistani interests do diverge in some respects, over Afghanistan. It would be mutually advantageous for both countries to seek a better understanding of each other’s concerns for the future of Afghanistan. Pakistan will continue to remain an important stakeholder along with other neighbors of Afghanistan namely Iran, China, and its near neighbor Russia. The US would do well to keep engaged with these countries in the quadrilateral talks mechanism already in place vis a vis the Taliban.

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