Written by C Uday Bhaskar.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, the first senior member of the Trump cabinet concluded what may be termed a ‘satisfactory’ visit to Delhi on Tuesday and his meeting with Indian counterpart Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman that saw all the boxes on the bilateral agenda being ticked off in a satisfactory manner. It was notable that for the record, Ms. Sitharaman confirmed that India would not be sending its troops to Afghanistan but would instead increase its development assistance. Indeed it would have been ‘breaking’ news if she had said anything to the contrary!
How the Trump team, with its battle-hardened generals, such as Mattis, Kelly and McMaster will square the Pakistani circle is a work in progress and the US-China relationship may provide some cues.
When Secretary Mattis visited Kabul the following day, the airport was subjected to rocket fire by local terrorist groups soon after his arrival and this show of defiance was clearly timed to demonstrate the limits of control and credibility that the beleaguered government of Ashraf Ghani can lay claim to. Both the local Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) affiliates claimed responsibility for the attack. It is understood that the Afghan security forces neutralised three of the attackers and as many as 13 civilians were wounded.
India was also tangentially affected by the raid. A Spicejet aircraft was waiting in Kabul airport to take-off for Delhi when this rocket attack occurred. Luckily there was no injury to passengers or damage to the aircraft.
The challenge of terrorism motivated by a distortion of the Islamic faith continues to erode the re-construction and development of Afghanistan, even in the aftermath of numerous troop surges under both the Obama and Trump administrations. Over the last 16 years, many nations have been victims of such terrorism but none more so than Afghanistan. The groups responsible for these attacks have often deliberately targeted innocent civilians. The better known groups operating in the region include the original remnants of al Qaeda, the Taliban, Islamic State (aka Daesh), the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and the Haqqani network to name just a few.
The one common strand that connects these groups and their support-base is the eco-system that exists within Pakistan, which has either provided the ideological training (software) or the weapons training and ordnance/financial support (hardware) to the cadres who join the ‘cause’ in different parts of the world.
India and the US have identified Islamist and jihadist terrorism as one of the major security challenge to their respective nations and Defense Secretary Mattis highlighted this aspect when he noted in Delhi: “There can be no tolerance of terrorist safe havens” and added that both nations have resolved to ‘eradicate this scourge.’
However, this will be a long and arduous path and, as the Kabul airport attack during the Mattis visit revealed, the Afghan government currently does not have the necessary capacity to either defeat the war-lords emphatically, or bring them to the negotiating table in a manner that will be acceptable: meaning that the Taliban put down the gun and accept the Afghan constitution.
The tactical challenge for India and the US, which was hinted at during the Mattis visit, is how to deal with the perfidy and duplicity associated with Pakistan and its army GHQ in Rawalpindi. The Pakistan army has long invested in terror groups such as the LeT and the Haqqani and has not shown any inclination to review this orientation as both groups simultaneously serve to keep India and Afghanistan off balance and continuously on the defensive. Even the Trump warning issued before Mattis’ visit has not had any significant impact and a defiant Pakistan has sought to lay the blame at the US’ door. This was evidenced most recently in the remarks of their Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif in New York at the UN General Assembly.
How the Trump team, with its battle-hardened generals, such as Mattis, Kelly and McMaster will square the Pakistani circle is a work in progress and the US-China relationship may provide some cues. The more strategic and long term aspect of the Mattis visit will be a hark back to June 2005—when the then Indian Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee and his US counterpart Donald Rumsfeld outlined a very ambitious security cooperation agreement.
Delhi and Washington are yet to arrive at a truly satisfactory and consensual agreement about how much of the 2005 vision can be actually implemented and at what cost and pace. The Mattis visit to Delhi is part of that continued effort and whilst satisfactory shows there is still work to be done on Indo-American defence ties and with the wider challenge of Pakistan.
C Uday Bhaskar is a retired Commodore in the Indian Navy and currently serves at the Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He tweets at @theUdayB. This article was first published on the online magazine The Week and has been reposted with the permission of the editor. Image credit: CC by Jim Mattis/Flickr.