The US National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster’s visit to the Subcontinent this week is the first by a top Trump administration official. It comes just a couple of days after the US military dropped the “mother of all bombs” at Afghanistan’s eastern frontier with Pakistan, and it could well mark a big shift in regional alignments. It might also provide an opportunity to build on the unfolding convergence of interests between Washington and Delhi in Afghanistan.
The decision to drop the massive 22,000-pound monster bomb, officially known as “GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast” (MOAB) was ostensibly about hitting the caves from which militants of the Islamic State were operating. But it may really be about warning America’s friends and adversaries in the region not to count the US out of the Afghan equation.
Under the “surge and exit” strategy for Afghanistan announced by President Barack Obama at the end of 2009, the US military presence peaked at nearly 1,00,000 troops in 2011 and began to decline soon after. Obama held back on the plans to pull out of Afghanistan in 2014 and left a residual force of around 9,000 troops. He would leave it to his successor to decide the future US course in Afghanistan. That is where President Donald Trump’s reported review of Afghan strategy and McMaster’s visit come in.
Speaking from Kabul over the weekend after his talks with the Afghan leadership, McMaster made it clear that the US was not going to leave without a fight. He expressed regret that at the height of US military commitment to Afghanistan, it did not have reliable partners in the country. And when it had one in President Ashraf Ghani, McMaster said, the US seemed to reduce its role in Afghanistan.
“Our enemy sensed that and they have redoubled their efforts and it’s time for us, alongside our Afghan partners, to respond,” he said. McMaster affirmed that the US was “committed to give the Afghan state, the Afghan security forces, the strength they need”.
The Trump administration has also signalled that it will not simply stand by and let the Russians and Chinese muscle into the Afghan theatre, where America had spent so much blood and treasure over the last decade and more. Obama seemed to encourage China to take the lead in promoting a peace process in Afghanistan. That initiative, however, failed to make much progress. Russia too has begun to dabble in Afghan politics by warming up not only to China and Pakistan, but also to the Taliban.
Just before McMaster arrived in Kabul, Washington rejected the invitation from Moscow to participate in a regional conference on Afghanistan last week by noting that Russia’s role has not been helpful. The use of MOAB, coming amidst the threats against North Korea and the cruise missile attack on Syria, must be seen as part of Washington’s strategy to mount pressure on China and Russia to get their clients in Pyongyang and Damascus to behave.
On the face of it, Washington and Moscow appear to have a common interest in defeating the Islamic State in Afghanistan. But here is the difference: Moscow thinks the Taliban is part of the solution in that fight. But McMaster is saying the Taliban is very much part of the problem. In Kabul, he urged Russia, Pakistan and others to stop supporting the Taliban and prolonging the war in Afghanistan.
So far, so good — from Delhi’s perspective. But it would want to know whether McMaster will take this logic forward and compel Pakistan to abandon its terror proxies. In an interview to the Afghan news agency, McMaster said, “All of us have hoped for many, many years — we have hoped that Pakistani leaders will understand that it is in their interest to go after these groups less selectively than they have in the past.” “The best way to pursue their (Pakistani) interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere”, McMaster added, “is through the use of diplomacy, and not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”
To be sure, this statement would be very welcome in India. Delhi, however, is acutely conscious that America has found it hard in the past to confront even the worst transgressions of Pakistan. If McMaster means a new beginning in Afghanistan and Pakistan is at hand, Delhi might be more than willing to work with Washington in stabilising Kabul.
Although the US and India have had shared interests in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban at the end of 2001, Washington, in deference to Rawalpindi, discouraged Delhi from an activist role there. India, on its part, had been too risk-averse to make bold moves in Afghanistan.
If Washington is ready to resist its marginalisation in Afghanistan by the Taliban, Pakistan, China and Russia, Delhi has incentives of its own to challenge Rawalpindi’s efforts to replace the present government in Kabul with its proxy. As McMaster arrives in Delhi this week, the challenge for India and the US is to turn this real Afghan convergence into effective regional policy coordination.