From October 23 to October 25 of this year, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson embarked on a trip to a number of countries in the Middle East, Central and Southern Asia. His main task was to look for answers to the questions that arose after the speech of the President Donald Trump on policy of the new US administration on Afghanistan. The final and main point of the trip of the high American official was India.
The military operation of the USA in Afghanistan, which has dragged on for 16 years, has turned into one of the most costly and intractable adventures in the whole of American history. An attempt was made to get out of it during the administration of US President Barack Obama, who, during his term in office, managed to reduce the US military presence in this country by 10 times.
Declaring the previous administration “guilty of everything” during the election campaign, nevertheless, Donald Trump rather accurately expressed the intention to continue with Barack Obama’s policy aimed at the full withdrawal of the American military from Afghanistan to its logical end.
Therefore, the expert community was surprised by the statement of Donald Trump (already as President) that the USA would not only continue its military presence in this country, but would also dispatch about five thousand more soldiers from private military companies to its territory.
The wording on the need to achieve “victory” without specification of over whom and how it would look, also sounded weird. For the many previous years, nothing similar to “victory” in Afghanistan was ever achieved; and we would like to repeat, during that time, the American military contingent (taking into account forces of the NATO member countries) much exceeded the group that is being deployed today, which is mainly engaged in the protection of its own area of deployment.
There is information appearing that the ‘hawkish’ words mentioned above were included in Donald Trump’s Afghan speech under pressure of his Secretary of Defence and the Secretary of State. Both of them, apparently, proceeded from considerations of the need to gain some time until the full military withdrawal of the US troops from Afghanistan. We recall, that the latter is an indispensable condition that was put forward by the Taliban in response to appeals to enter into negotiations on the termination of hostilities in the territory of the country and creation of something similar to a ‘government of national reconciliation’.
Until now, the main platform for such negotiations was the Quadripartite Coordination Group, which included representatives of the ministries of foreign affairs of the USA, the People’s Republic of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The several rounds of the negotiation process that have taken place on this platform this year have not yielded any practically meaningful results due to the ignoring of the negotiations by the Taliban, i.e. by one of the main parties to the conflict.
We should also pay attention to that India,, whose role in Afghan affairs is growing and whose inter-governmental relations with the latter look quite positive (the same cannot be said about the relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan), is not a member of this group.
Undoubtedly, Washington is also taking into account such an extremely important point of the game around the Afghan problem, as radical change in the last 10…15 years of positioning of India and Pakistan in relation to current main world powers, that is, to the USA and China.
If, at the time of the Cold War, India was an adversary of the USA (and a quasi-ally of the USSR as the main opponent of America), then today, it (together with Japan) is considered by Washington as one of the main American pillars in the confrontation with China. As for Pakistan, the transformation with its positioning in relation to the USA and China that has occurred in the same period of time has exactly the opposite character.
All these changes were clearly reflected in the above-mentioned Afghan speech of Donald Trump, in which India was represented positively, while Pakistan was presented as “a safe haven for terrorists”.
In the same speech, a way out (literally and, in the author’s opinion, inevitable) of the Afghan problem was also clearly outlined. This ‘way out’ can be presented as a ‘victory’ only in case of the ‘transfer of the duty’ in Afghanistan to friendly India which was urged to expand its presence in the country. The hint on the desirability of the inclusion of military components into the Indian involvement in the Afghan affairs was also quite transparent.
At the same time, the pressure on Pakistan to force it to terminate its ‘ambiguous’ policy towards Afghanistan is growing. It is presupposed that Pakistan should strengthen control over the cross-border migration of the Taliban (i.e. the Pashtun people) who do not recognize the so-called “Durand Line” randomly drawn back in the day as the Afghan-Pakistani border.
However, we shall repeat that today, Pakistan relies on the strong support of the People’s Republic of China and, while declaring its commitment to the ‘fight against terrorism”, is conducting a policy in the region that it considers favourable for itself.
Official comments on the visit of Rex Tillerson to India (where he arrived after brief stops in Kabul , Islamabad, and the capitals of Qatar and Saudi Arabia) are presented in positive tones. And there are strong reasons for this. Suffice it to refer to the confirmation of the promises to supply India with “the most advanced” American weapons (for example, 22 Sea Guardian drones for a total amount of USD 2 billion); to the statement for the forthcoming bilateral meeting in the 2+2 format (that is, with participation of the ministers of foreign affairs and defence); to the announcement of the possibility of carrying out negotiations in a tripartite format with participation of representatives of the USA, India and Afghanistan in December this year.
Nevertheless, there is not a hint of any prospects of India sending expeditionary military group to Afghanistan as a result of Rex Tillerson’s talks with the Head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of India and the Prime Minister of the country Narendra Modi. Perhaps, after carrying out the tripartite negotiations mentioned above, there will be more clarity on this issue.
Let us note that such a step would look extremely precipitate for India today. And the point is even not so much in Pakistan, which considers Afghanistan as a ‘backyard’ in the confrontation with the same India (which sums up the essence of the problematic Afghanistan-Pakistan relations).
The inevitably negative response of China to such a (hypothetical) step with which India has just narrowly avoided a military conflict in the Himalayas is much more important. The way how the conflict was avoided showed the desire of Delhi to avoid the further exacerbation of relations with Beijing and their transfer into a zero-sum game.
However, this will happen with high probability in case of a positive response of Delhi to the transparent messages from Washington concerning Afghanistan.
Besides, despite the generally positive development of the US-Indian relations, there are still serious problems remaining, which came to light during the negotiations between Sushma Swaraj and Rex Tillerson. It was clearly shown to the latter that India shall not curtail its relations with DPRK and Iran. In particular, the implementation of the extremely important project (both for India and Iran) on the upgrade of Chabahar Port on the Iranian coast of the Gulf of Oman shall be continued.
The American guest was once again made aware of the problems with obtaining visas by millions of Indian specialists (primarily programmers) who have worked for many years at American companies. These problems have been exacerbated by the generally ‘anti-immigrant’ policy of the new US President.
India continues to pursue an independent policy, proceeding from its own interests. Therefore, the USA would have to continue floundering further alone for some time in the Afghan ‘swamp’ counting on more favourable times, which have yet never come in this ‘burial ground of empires’.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”