KABUL, Oct. 23: There was a time not so long ago when a US cabinet member or high official visiting Islamabad and New Delhi on the same trip to the region would have irked India and invited grumbling about American hyphenation of the two countries. But such is the rapidly evolving nature of ties between Washington and New Delhi, seen in some quarters as being just short of a formal alliance, that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is not only touching down in Islamabad on his way to New Delhi on Tuesday, he's also tailing Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani in to the Indian capital after an unannounced stopover in Kabul for what could end up as a trilateral US-India-Afghanistan meeting aimed at bringing Pakistan to heel.
The schedule, and even more, statements preceding and accompanying his travels to the region, tell the story of the new American strategy for the region under President Trump, fairly transparently. The US, India, and Afghanistan want Pakistan and its terrorist proxies to butt out of the war-ravaged country; all three hold Pakistan and its military responsible for the decades-long crisis because of Islamabad's neurotic search for strategic depth against India. And all three are working together to sideline Pakistan after its toxic role in the region, partly with Chinese help.
Tillerson himself offered a blunt preview of his agenda for the Islamabad visit saying the US now has a "conditions-based" approach with regards to Pakistan, and the Trump administration had made some "very specific requests" of Islamabad to undermine its support for terrorist groups. "We are concerned about future stability of Pakistan as much as Afghanistan. Pakistan needs to take a clear-eyed view of the situation they are confronted with," he said. In Washington, a senior administration official bluntly stated that Afghanistan needed India's help primarily so that the state can be "hardened and strengthened against any regenerative capacity of the Taliban which lies mainly across the border in Pakistan."
The statements were preceded by a withering policy speech in Washington last week in which Tillerson not only spoke of US ties with India in a 100-year framework, but also characterized Pakistan and China as disruptive spoilers in the region.
Whether Pakistan will submit to the combined will of Washington, New Delhi, and Kabul remains to be seen. The initial signs are not promising. Following up on US Defense Secretary James Mattis' warning that the Washington has many instruments at its disposal to bring Pakistan to heel that President Trumo "is prepared to take whatever steps are necessary," US Drones launched a flurry of missile strikes in Pakistan last week killing dozens of purported militants.
In what appears to be retaliatory attacks, Pakistani proxies attacked Afghan military barracks and mosques with suicide squads, killing dozens of Afghan military personnel.
Commentary in the Pakistani media suggests that Islamabad is gearing up to reject the Trump administration's strategy of giving India a lead role in stabilizing Afghanistan, even though talking heads are warning that Pakistan's economy is crumbling and it does not have the capacity to stand up to Washington. With domestic internal political crisis strangling the country, the expected bailout from China, Russia and other supposed allies has not come, and key leaders, such as its former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa have been making a beeline to Saudi Arabia, the last resort arbiters and patrons of the Pakistan state.
One question vexing New Delhi would be whether it can or should have long-term confidence in President Trump's strategy and personnel. Already, the tattle in Washington is that Tillerson's days as Secretary of State is numbered (Washington Post tipped U.S ambassador to U.N Nikki Haley as a possible replacement). Trump is also heading to China on November 8, and given his temperament, there is no saying what he will say or do during the visit, notwithstanding stated policy or planned choreography. For now though, the action is in the Indian subcontinent will Tillerson set on a three-nation swing. TOI
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