US Defense Secretary General James Mattis in New Delhi and Kabul

The well-known saying “a week is a long time in politics” has been proved accurate because political leaders have to constantly adjust their stance to accommodate the changing political realities. A few years back then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a well-publicised address, spoke of the need for the United States to “pivot to Asia” in view of the emerging realities in that region. A part of that pivot was the US desire to upgrade its bilateral relationship with India. Some American strategists saw this as a counterweight to the rising power of China in the region.

While serving as Chief Minister of Gujarat, current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi suffered the ignominy of having his US visa rescinded. Modi had become controversial in 2002 for allegedly being complicit in the Gujarat communal riots in which the minority Muslim community suffered at least 1000 fatalities at the hands of the Hindu majority. The Indian Supreme Court had however absolved him of culpability.

The US government seems to have forgotten about Modi’s controversial past and his membership of the Hindu extremist party, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organisation). The same Modi is now considered a major ally of the United States and was accorded a state visit recently to the United States. He was much fussed over by President Trump and other senior American officials especially the CEOs of major American corporations. The major thrust of the visit was to accelerate the Indo-US relationship in the defence, political and commercial fields. Mattis was reportedly pushing for the sale of a large order of advanced American aircraft to India. It is worth noting that India is one of the largest importers of defence equipment according to the well-known defence industry watchdog Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

The visit of General Mattis to India is a follow up to the enhanced bilateral relationship between the two countries. The media has reported that the sale of sophisticated American defence armaments and the enhanced Indian role in Afghanistan were two primary items in the talks between General Mattis and his Indian counterpart Sushma Swaraj. (Interestingly, this appears to be the first time that the two key ministries of foreign affairs and defence are headed by Indian women politicians). In response to Mattis’ request for increased engagement by India in Afghanistan, Swaraj apparently agreed to consider an increased level of developmental assistance to Afghanistan, but said that no Indian troops would be sent to support the Afghan government.

Pakistan is suspicious of India’s role in war-torn Afghanistan. The American encouragement of a more active role for India in Afghanistan would compound Pakistan’s apprehensions. The Afghan government has allowed a number of Indian consulates to operate on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Pakistani government claims that these consulates are fomenting anti-Pakistan activities by assisting insurgent groups such as the Baluchistan Liberation Army, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and others.

The United States attempts to engage India in Afghanistan cannot but be a sore point in the downturn which the US-Pakistan bilateral relations are currently experiencing. During the United Nations General Assembly session, the Afghan president was received by President Trump while the Pakistani Prime Minister only got a meeting with the Vice President. The fact that the US-Pakistani relationship has been diminished would be further evidenced by the forthcoming visit to Islamabad of a relatively junior Acting Assistant Secretary of State, compared to the higher-level ministerial visits which have been recently exchanged between the United States and India.

The Taliban showed their reach and power by firing rockets at the Kabul airport where General Mattis and the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg had landed for a brief visit. The attack could undoubtedly have considerable symbolic significance because it exposes the inability of the Afghan government to control such attacks on high level dignitaries visiting Kabul.

General Mattis is supposed to have suggested that the US was ready to engage with the Taliban with a view to reaching a peaceful accommodation and an end to the civil war. This is more or less what the Pakistanis had been advocating to the US for quite some time, that direct talks between the United States and the Taliban, supported by Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries stood a better chance of a diplomatic solution to the Afghan quagmire, and an ending to the abominable status quo in Afghanistan. This state of affairs has badly affected Pakistan’s security, economy and stability. A peaceful resolution to this long-standing war would be welcomed in Washington as it would extricate it from the longest war in American history.

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