NEW YORK - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had to do some elaborate diplomatic two-steps during their swing across the Indian subcontinent during the first week of September. And that goes way beyond simply being forced to deny that neither was the anonymous author of the stunning New York Times column disclosing that senior administration officials were “working diligently from within to frustrate parts of (Trump’s) agenda and his worst inclinations.”
Beyond the backdrop of reported tension over Trump’s mimicking of the accent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there were the Gordian-like questions of choosing the United States’ greatest friend between arch neighbors, India and Pakistan; which of the two is the most effective bulwark against Chinese expansion and Taliban militants, and which could be the most reliable partner in trade and commerce.
The visit did not get off to a very auspicious start. Back in January, Trump accused Pakistan of rewarding past U.S. military assistance with “nothing but lies and deceit” by continuing to grant safe haven and support to Taliban insurgents waging an unrelenting war against American forces in Afghanistan. Congress promptly withdrew $500 million in aid funds, then on Sept. 1, the Pentagon canceled another $300 million in military assistance, bringing the total to $800 million. A Pentagon spokesman attributed the action to “a lack of Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia Strategy.”
But Pakistan installed a new prime minister, Imran Khan, in August, so Pompeo felt it was worth a stab at a re-start. Hence his first stop, in Islamabad, to meet the onetime World Cup cricketer, who described himself in Trumpian terms.
“I have stepped on the field, and I am going to win,” Khan told Pompeo and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “A sportsman is always an optimist,” Khan explained. Afterward, there was a cold dose of reality as Pompeo observed he’d enjoyed the meeting but there was “a long way to go” before military aid would start flowing again.
The problem is that right after this backslapping flyby, Pompeo went on to New Delhi, where he was joined by Mattis, and where their clearly preferential treatment of India set the scene for aggravated tensions between India and Pakistan that certainly could not have made Khan’s hopes for an accommodation easier for him domestically.
From the moment of their creation as independent countries 71 years ago, India and Pakistan have been at each other’s throats along their shared 3,200-km border. And with each now commanding substantial nuclear arsenals, their rivalry is a critical element in Asia’s strategic equation.
The headline move by Pompeo and Mattis during their stop in India was the signing of a major military communications accord, two decades in the making, that provides for a real-time exchange of encrypted data on the same military-grade communications equipment used by the American armed forces. The U.S. has only signed similar accords with fewer than 30 countries. The pact had been stalled largely on Indian fears that it would give the U.S. military access to a range of Indian strategic communications.
The timing of this breakthrough agreement, which also includes the first joint military exercises in 2019 between U.S. and Indian forces off the eastern coast of India, could hardly have been coincidental. Trump, with his diatribe against Pakistani aid to the Taliban, had clearly thrown down a challenge that India was only too delighted to seize.
“India supports President Trump’s South Asia policy,” Indian Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj gushed after the talks. “His call for Pakistan to stop its policy of supporting cross-border terrorism finds resonance with us.” In case anyone missed that point, she added that “the threat of terrorism emanating from Pakistan … has affected India and the United states alike.”
But one key issue was left unresolved: India’s willingness to ignore U.S. sanctions against Russia and Iran. Indian officials are planning to buy five advanced S-400 air-defense systems from Russia for $5.8 billion and want to continue purchasing oil from Iran — a close and cheap provider of 10 percent of the energy needs for India’s booming economy. Pompeo said only that talks are underway over the issue of waivers for both deals.
Indeed, if India bows to Washington’s pressure to cut ties with Russia, it is not impossible to envision Pakistan becoming a most attractive alternative for Kremlin largesse and closer ties than ever before. Already, Russia has stepped in quickly and agreed to train Pakistani military officers in Russian military institutions. This on top of the $2 billion natural gas pipeline Russia has built in Pakistan and is filling with LNG at increasingly attractive prices.
At the same time China, long a potent presence in Pakistan, is also doing its best to pull its neighbor even closer. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has included substantial loans from Beijing to Islamabad since its opening in 2013, reaching a level where Pompeo has said that any IMF aid to Pakistan must not be used to repay Chinese debt.
The problem, of course, is that Trump’s clear tilt toward India will hardly halt Pakistan’s continued drift toward neighboring China and Russia.
What Trump wants from Pakistan is to ease off aid to the Taliban, weakening their fighters enough to force them to a negotiating table and thereby enable the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan. But the reality is that no matter how much Khan would love to see $800 million flowing again into Pakistan’s coffers, he’ll face a hard battle to persuade his powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency to crack down on entrenched Pakistan-based Taliban networks that share the Islamic State’s hatred for India.
Trump must recognize that getting his way across the subcontinent could bring down a fragile edifice, one that has been propped up by delicate presidential balancing acts since the days of the Truman administration.
David A. Andelman, a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News, is a visiting scholar at the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School.