India must reset its relations with Washington that sees quick gains in engaging Pakistan

India has to rethink its Afghan strategy by focusing first on Pakistan. It’s all very well to take a principled position of not talking to the Taliban and supporting democratic forces in Kabul. But it’s essential not to lose sight of the fact that Afghanistan becomes a real problem for India when Pakistan leverages the situation there to strengthen its military establishment.

The F-16s and the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs) used against India in the post-Balakot air battle were obtained from the US a decade ago in the name of fighting the war on terror. So, it’s not surprising that F-16s were high on the Pakistani military’s priority during its Prime Minister Imran Khan’s recent US visit. He was accompanied by Pakistan’s military brass.

From what it appears, the Donald Trump government has stayed the course and, instead, handed a $125 million technical support package meant to enable round-the-clock end-use monitoring of F-16s in Pakistan. Some 60 additional personnel will be deputed on the ground. However, this would also mean filling the gaps where necessary to ensure Pakistan’s F-16 fleet is fully engaged in combating the forces of terror on its western front.

India would like to believe that the enhanced end-use monitoring will make it difficult for Pakistan to divert them to the India border. But that was also the interpretation a decade ago when George W Bush resumed F-16 assistance to Pakistan. Yet, F-16s engaged Indian targets after the Balakot strike.

On balance, it appears, Pakistan has got some assistance to keep its fleet in shape while India can be satisfied that the US is making efforts to, at least, keep a closer watch on its assets. But the real issue for India is that Pakistan now believes it has one foot in the door for the first time since Trump took over. The last window was closed when former US President Barack Obama failed to get US Congressional approval to fund the sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan in 2016.

Khan Can, But Little 

The other somewhat triumphant moment for Pakistan was when the US recently designated the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA) as a terror group. Pakistan’s growing centrality in the Taliban peace talks possibly allowed it the latitude to make the US deliver on this demand.

For long, Pakistan has blamed India for its troubles in Baluchistan. BLA had also become a big nuisance to construction activity on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). This was, undoubtedly, a small yet noticeable twist to Washington’s otherwise strong anti-Pakistan terror narrative. And then, of course, came the big Trump claim on Kashmir mediation in front of Khan.

While he may have conjured up the so-called conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it’s unlikely Trump made those remarks without a political purpose. The script did play out well enough for Khan to be overjoyed and claim success at home. So, yes, Pakistan has a few reasons to believe that it’s finally being able to leverage the Taliban, and the future of Afghanistan, to its benefit, even if the gains are only incremental in nature.

More importantly, Islamabad now knows what edifice to chip away at. But, for India, there’s enough to prompt a rethink. China and Russia are moving together on Afghanistan. Unlike the 1990s, China is today an active player in influencing the future course for Afghanistan.

Russia is no longer the big regional force of two decades ago that built an anti-Taliban front along with India and Iran. Its principal interest would be to see the US withdraw, while seeking to influence Chinese designs for the region. Iran can prove to be an important partner to India. But it will eventually gravitate towards the non-US grouping, given that it’s now a target of the Trump government.

All these stakeholder nations, including Iran, have opened some sort of official communication channel with the Taliban. Pakistan is crucial, if not central, to each of their plans. And, finally, none of them is particularly fussed about the continuation of democratic processes, like holding the delayed presidential elections in Afghanistan. India’s stated position is that it will not undermine the democratically elected government in Kabul and that it’s in no official conversation with the Taliban.

There’s nothing wrong with that position. Except, it shouldn’t mean losing out elsewhere. The main problem for India is that the stronger the influence of Pakistan in Afghanistan, the greater Pakistan’s ability to recruit, fund and train terrorist groups to carry out attacks on Indian territory. Here, India and the US stand on common ground. Both have been victims of terror attacks emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Washington is not just cognisant of this, but also knows well that any withdrawal plan or agreement with the Taliban simply cannot come at the cost of compromises on the terror front.

Namaste Washington 

This is where India needs to work on the US more proactively. From the way the forces are arraigned in the region, no other stakeholder country other than the US is likely to prioritise Indian concerns on Pakistan-sponsored terror. The time has come for India to think hard on how to proactively reset its relationship with a frustrated Washington that sees immediate political gains in engaging Pakistan. Because, for India, the Great Game begins not in Kabul, Moscow or Beijing but in fundamentally influencing, if not altering, the play in Washington.