Geopolitical gears appear to be shifting once again in South Asia with Washington being the primary driver. The question is whether this portends a return to the cosy relationship between the United States and Pakistan as in the past?
For, if Washington is once again planning to use Islamabad as a pivot for its South and West Asia policy, then New Delhi has reason to be concerned even though the imperative for such a development is neither hostile nor anti-India.
The hard fact of the matter is that a re-engagement or revival of the strategic inter-dependencies between those two countries has a direct bearing on India. While Washington’s view is global and multi-dimensional, Islamabad’s is not — it has always been India-centric and continues to be so.
New Delhi’s greatest concern traditionally has been the transfer of military systems and technology to Islamabad. It is difficult to forget that the Pakistan Air Force dared to attack Indian targets after Balakot simply because it had American-made F-16 fighter aircraft fitted with AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM).
This missile was supplied to the Pakistanis by the US as recently as 2011. India protested against the sales and for good reason too. It was well known that the missiles supplied would be a game changer in the South Asian context given that this particular variant, the 120C, with its range of over 100km, would out-distance any missile currently in the IAF’s arsenal.
Right enough, when it came to the crunch in the post-Balakot skirmish, there was nothing the IAF could do but throw an aircraft at the intruding enemy and get close enough for a shot. The downing of the MiG-21 piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman proved how much of a disadvantage India was at because of US military transfers to Pakistan.
In recent years, arms transfers by Washington to Pakistan have virtually ceased due to the deteriorating strategic ties since 2016. US President Donald Trump had suspended security and other assistance to Pakistan, accusing Islamabad of repaying US generosity with only “lies and deceit”.
The main problem between the two arose from differences over Afghanistan. But now with Islamabad and Washington drawing close to a deal on Afghanistan which would allow an orderly US military withdrawal, the equations once again have changed.
The Taliban, which is controlled by Pakistan’s Army headquarters, seem to have agreed to hold intra-Afghan talks and could be amenable to some sort of power sharing. Perhaps, they might even allow a small US military presence to remain in Afghanistan. However, it is clear that Washington, in its quest to quit the unending Afghan war, is prepared to cede effective control in that country to Islamabad. China could also play a role as guarantor.
President Trump has, however, made it a point to reassure New Delhi that he intends to look after its interests. This is perhaps why he took personal credit for the arrest of arch-terrorist Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind behind the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, in Pakistan on Wednesday. This might suggest that New Delhi may not be left out completely in the cold in these shifting times.
But the story of change doesn’t end here. The Trump administration could be preparing to cosy up to Pakistan not because it hates or dislikes India but because it feels it might need the help of Pakistan’s jihadist generals to further its many and often complex aims in West Asia, where things are in a ferment today.
A hint of what might be in the offing was offered by the US Gen. Mark A. Milley, who was nominated by President Trump as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his response to questions for his confirmation hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general stated: “From East Asia to the Middle East to Eastern Europe, authoritarian actors are testing the limits of the international system and seeking regional dominance while challenging international norms and undermining US interests… Our goal should be to sustain great power peace that has existed since World War II, and deal firmly with all those who might challenge us.”
He pointedly mentioned Pakistan as “a key partner in achieving US interests in South Asia, including developing a political settlement in Afghanistan; defeating Al Qaeda and ISIS-Khorasan; providing logistical access for US forces; and enhancing regional stability”.
Significantly, he called for a strengthening of military-to-military ties with Pakistan, adding: “While we have suspended security assistance and paused major defence dialogues, we need to maintain strong military-to- military ties based on our shared interests.” So now it’s back to the good old days of shared interests!
The first-ever summit-level meeting between Pakistan PM Imran Khan and President Trump is due next week (July 22) at the White House. Pakistan foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who will be there, declared that this invitation constituted an “acknowledgement of the inherent importance” of bilateral ties. He was also quick to add that Pakistan was “mindful” of US priorities in war-torn Afghanistan. The times are indeed changing once again!
Perhaps Islamabad’s strategic importance, as an ultimate guarantor of “peace” in West Asia, has assumed more relevance given the rapid breakdown of Washington’s relations with Turkey, a Nato ally, over the purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems and other major disagreements. President Trump had warned Turkey not to go ahead with the S-400 deal, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by declaring the S-400 deal to be “the most important agreement in [Turkish] modern history.” Deliveries of the missile system commenced from July 12.
This constitutes a huge snub to the United States. But things could get worse as some reports suggest that Turkey may be planning to assault parts of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish forces supported by the United States.
Things are also not going well for the Saudis in their war against the tenacious Houthis of Yemen, who are Shias supported by the ayatollahs in Tehran. Other Arab nations are quietly leaving the Saudi war. The regime change effort in Syria too has failed.
All this is reason for Washington to be worried. Hence the move to mend fences with estranged allies. New Delhi, on the other hand, which has big plans for boosting its relations with Washington, must heed the changes that could threaten to prick its ballooning ambitions.