Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of state arrived, spoke what he was expected to and left. Now it is time to take stock of what this awaited visit meant for India and Pakistan. India was his final stop in Asia as part of his six-nation tour. He spent a few hours in surprise visits, possibly due to security reasons, in Iraq and Afghanistan. His visit to Pakistan was in total, four hours. India was expectedly special. The difference in duration conveys the importance that US attaches to India.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, his emphasis was on discussing the prevailing security environment. The Afghan visit bears relevance as the message specifically for Pakistan to change policies towards terrorism emanated from there. It was clear and concise, close terror camps and cease supporting terror groups. After conveying this message, he flew to Pakistan.
In Pakistan, there was a combined interaction with the polity and military leadership.Pakistan claims that it had so planned it,to convey to the US that all organs of the country are on the same page, however, what it conveyed was that the military is the dominating force and would remain, the rest being just puppets. Hence, the US would need to handle the Pak army, not its polity. In true democracies, the army is never at the forefront of diplomacy but always remains in the background.
Pak projected that it feels threatened by growing Indian power, has curbed terror groups and is no longer providing safe havens. This was in stark contrast to what their foreign minister had stated less than a month ago, when he mentioned that LeT and Haqqani network are liabilities which would take time to handle. There were no takers for Pak’s viewpoint.
It also would have indicated its resentment to an enhanced Indian role in Afghanistan and as usual requested the US to initiate dialogue on Kashmir. Pak considers Afghanistan and Kashmir as interlinked. Resolution of Kashmir, in Pak’s perception, would result in peace in Afghanistan, no matter how preposterous it may sound. These are Pakistan’s pet topics, which are generally ignored.
The visit to India involved multiple interactions with those concerned with national policies and strategies. He interacted with the NSA, External Affairs Minister, defence minister and called on the Prime Minister. The most exhaustive meeting was with the foreign minister, post which a joint statement was issued.
The joint statement indicated commonality in thought and approach to the world in general and the region in specific. This is natural as both nations face almost similar threats,including containing a belligerent China, especially as it expands its footprints in the South China Sea. He declared the US’s willingness to share latest technologies for India’s military development and hoped India would look at the F-16 and F-18 aircraft favourably.
Major statements by both were on the future of Afghanistan. In contrast to Pakistan’s claims and objections, Tillerson openly stated that India is crucial to US strategy in Afghanistan. This sent a blunt message to Pak, that Indian footprint would expand in Afghanistan, despite their complaints, unless they behaved. Both nations openly condemned Pak for supporting terror groups, thus conveying that it does not believe Pak when it states that no groups operate from its soil.
Two contentious issues were discussed, in passing. India announced a drastic reduction in trade with North Korea, to the happiness of the US, but also refused to close its embassy. Secondly, the US had no objections to India building Chabahar port in Iran and enhancing its trade and diplomatic ties with it and through it with Afghanistan.
With Tillerson back in the US, will Indo-US relations get a fillip? The US is considering the sale of armed drones to India, which it may for quite some time more, keeping India waiting. Technology from the US may flow, albeit slowly, as they have their own processes. The technology which would flow would never be top of the rung, always notches below. Indo-US-Japan naval exercises would continue, possibly including Australia, also making right noises for the informationof China. India is enhancing deployment in the Indian Ocean, not because US desires it, but for its own security.
The major fallout of the visit was on terrorism emanating from Pakistan. This has two parts. Firstly, is Pak’s support to terror groups operating in Afghanistan and secondly for terror groups operating against India. Tillerson appeared more concerned about Afghanistan than problems being faced by India.
While the US may have placed a bounty on Hafiz Saeed, it is aware he is roaming free, addressing rallies and collecting donations for waging Jihad against India. This issue was never mentioned nor discussed, indicating the US’s Afghan bias. Even the list of terrorists demanded by the US from Pak did not have his name,though the joint statement did mention that Pak must stop terror groups from operating from its soil.
The visit clearly indicated, that despite all closeness and proximity with India, their concerns are their own interests in Afghanistan and the challenges they face. Indian concerns are secondary in their eyes. While they would provide technological support in building Indian military power, it would mainly be in those fields, which could assist them in handling their challenges, naval and air power. Hence, this was realpolitik at its best.
While India is militarily capable of countering any threats in its own near environment, establishing closer ties with the US would ensure support in the international environment.For Pak, Tillerson needed to be convinced that it is for pro-Afghan peace talks, but it failed. The trust deficit between the two only widened. There was no mention of drone strikes in Pak, implying it would continue as hither to fore.
With Tillerson’s visit receding into the background, Pak is back to where it earlier was, supporting terror groups on its soil. Its Kashmir policy would remain unchanged, infiltration and border violations would continue. Pak would however remain wary of increased Indian footprints in Afghanistan, but will only rue over it, unable to restrict it. Life in the subcontinent would be as hither to his visit, unless the US applies more pressure on Pak.
(The author is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)