The counter-terror endgame in South Asia starts with Modi meeting Trump
War against terrorism Photograph: (Others)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the US President Donald Trump have a crowded agenda when they meet later today. From economics and trade to defence and regional security, multiple issues will vie for their attention. But one issue where the two leaders would be hoping for a strong convergence of views would be counterterrorism. It is a priority for both leaders and they have indicated that they remain committed to robust counter terror policies. Modi has already underscored this in the US when, while addressing a gathering of Indian-Americans in Virginia, he said that India’s surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the LoC last year after the Uri attack were proof that the nation can stand up in its own defense when needed. He also underlined the challenge that India has faced in communicating India’s terrorism challenge with the West, when he sarcastically argued that “When India talked of terrorism 20 years back, many in the world said it was a law and order problem and didn’t understand it. Now terrorists have explained terrorism to them so we don’t have to.”
Trump administration is also discussing various tough options vis-à-vis Pakistan such as expanding U.S. drone strikes, redirecting or withholding some aid to Pakistan and perhaps eventually downgrading Pakistan's status as a major non-NATO ally.
India-US ties have been growing in recent years and counterterrorism has been an area where significant convergence has been achieved, at times with great difficulty. For long where India viewed Pakistan as the epicentre of terrorism, Washington remained reluctant to put pressure on what it argued was a close ally in its ‘war against terrorism.’ Even in the early years of Barack Obama, the US tried to make Pakistan into strategic partner in counterterrorism. But it failed spectacularly. By the end of Obama Administration, senior officials were openly calling for tougher actions against Pakistan. Donald Trump’s rhetoric during the Presidential campaign was very tough but since coming to office, his administration is yet to evolve a cohesive counter terror approach. Though both India and the US agree on the need for zero-tolerance against terror, no meaningful progress can happen without seriously tackling Pakistan's role in supporting terror groups. India has taken a tough stand on Pakistan’s support for terrorism by underscoring its concerns in various international fora about terrorism emanating from Pakistan. Modi would like to make India’s case once again when he meets Trump at a time when the Trump administration is also discussing various tough options vis-à-vis Pakistan such as expanding U.S. drone strikes, redirecting or withholding some aid to Pakistan and perhaps eventually downgrading Pakistan's status as a major non-NATO ally.
American policy makers have been particularly concerned the Haqqani's presence in Pakistan, a group which was designated as a terrorist organization as far back as in 2012. Admiral Mike Mullen, then the top US military officer, told the US Congress in 2011 that the Haqqani network was a "veritable arm" of the ISI. The Haqqani network has used its sanctuaries in Pakistan to mount high-profile attacks in Afghanistan against American interests. Therefore, in its first formal high-level exchange between the US and Pakistan under the Donald Trump administration, the US national Security Advisor H.R. McMaster conveyed a strong message to Pakistani officials that there is an urgent “need to confront terrorism in all its forms”. He was categorical in his assessment of Pakistani complicity in destabilizing Afghanistan when he underscored that “as 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 and the best way to pursue their interests in Afghanistan and elsewhere is through diplomacy, not through the use of proxies that engage in violence.”
In an acknowledgment that US-backed forces are not winning and Taliban militants are resurgent, the Trump Administration is again poised to deploy thousands more troops in Afghanistan.
But there is no clarity yet on what form a new Afghanistan policy will take under the Trump administration. Though there have been calls by military commanders for adding “several thousand” troops to the 8,400 US forces already in Afghanistan so as to break the stalemate with the Taliban, a decision on the troop level is yet to come. Trump also consented to the dropping of the GBU-43/B massive ordnance air blast (MOAB) bomb, nicknamed the “mother of all bombs”, on a network of fortified underground tunnels that the Islamic State (IS) had been using to stage attacks on Afghan government forces in Nangarhar province, near the Pakistan border. In an acknowledgment that US-backed forces are not winning and Taliban militants are resurgent, the Trump Administration is again poised to deploy thousands more troops in Afghanistan. And the Pentagon, in a report to the US Congress last week, explicitly accused elements of Pakistan's government of supporting Afghanistan-focused militant groups, including the Taliban and Haqqani Network, who it said retained "freedom of action" within Pakistan. It called Pakistan "the most influential external actor affecting Afghan stability."
The Trump administration is under pressure to put more pressure on Pakistan and to curtail Pakistan’s ability to create mischief in Afghanistan. New Delhi will have to ensure that Washington takes a holistic view of the Pakistan problem and unlike in the past when India’s concerns with regard to Pakistan were given a shirt shift, this time a new approach is evolved in consultation with India.
For a robust Indo-US partnership on counter-terrorism, India and the US will have to be on the same page. A partial view of the terrorism problem will not help India. But it will also not help American foreign policy priorities.
It is clear that Pakistan will be watched carefully by the Trump administration in how it follows through on its commitments. Washington views the strengthening of Afghan security forces and political institutions as key to the long-term stabilization of Afghanistan. For that Pakistan’s role will have to re-evaluated. In light of Pakistan’s continuing destabilising behaviour in across the LoC, Modi will have to ensure that Trump gets a sense as to what is at stake. For a robust Indo-US partnership on counter-terrorism, India and the US will have to be on the same page. A partial view of the terrorism problem will not help India. But it will also not help American foreign policy priorities.