What Trump's Speech On India And Pak Means For Modi Government

Published: August 22, 2017 18:06 IST
It is difficult to trust President Donald Trump's speeches - as the last week so disastrously demonstrated to the world, he is quite capable of walking back a speech written by his advisors the next day in off-the-cuff remarks or 2 am tweets. But if you do take Trump seriously for a moment, what should we think about his remarks on Afghanistan, Pakistan and India after a long meeting of the US National Security Council?

On the one hand, there were some troubling aspects to it - after all, nobody likes the US' relationship with India to be framed entirely in terms that are either commercial ("Indians make billions off us") or focused on Pakistan (what we call "hyphenation", as in India-Pakistan"). But if one sets that aside, there is much that New Delhi can take away that is positive from Trump's latest broadside. 

The first and politically most important aspect of it to India is that Trump minced no words about Pakistan. The Barack Obama-led administration had also begun to pressure Pakistan about the terrorists it hosted on its soil, but Obama was typically careful about how he addressed the issue rhetorically. Even his 2016 speech to the United Nations General Assembly on terrorism, which was widely seen in India as a condemnation of Pakistani policy, avoided calling the country out directly.

It is important to understand the effects of how Trump's speech framed the debate. The standard Pakistani approach to criticism of its record is to declare that it is a "frontline state" in fighting terrorism, and to point out that it has lost civilians and soldiers to terrorism as well. This is true, as far as it goes - but it does not go very far. In fact, expectations that Pakistani "sacrifice" be seen as a defence of its actions - demand which its "all-weather" friends in Beijing tend to satisfy - are the problem. These demands allow Islamabad to maintain a policy divide between how it treats Islamist militants that threaten its own security and those that threaten Afghanistan and India. The point is that Pakistan has to shut down all terrorist support on its soil, and not just those that directly and immediately threaten its own population.

So what has the Pakistani response been? By and large predictable - and self-defeating. Imran Khan has tweeted that fighting terrorism was done to earn dollars: "Never fight other's wars for the lure for dollars". It's odd, frankly, to see the Pakistani military's favourite politician essentially declaring that the Pakistan army is a mercenary force. And to describe action against the Pakistani Taliban as somebody else's war. Others have claimed that Trump's expressed desire to see India play a larger role in Afghanistan will only strengthen Pakistani paranoia about encirclement.

But let's be clear: Pakistani paranoia about Indian designs is just that - paranoia. Like all irrational reactions, you cannot give in to it a little in the hope that it will entirely dissipate. It has to be shown to be contradictory and irrational if it is to change. 

The best way for India to do this is to in fact step up its assistance to Afghanistan, assistance which is focused on enhancing the capacity of the state and civil society. Transparency is useful; the more Indian civilians and Indian cash involved in Afghanistan, the more it will be clear that Indian intentions there are simply to help stabilise a troubled country in our neighbourhood, and one with a population that has a friendly view of New Delhi. We need to welcome more Afghan students and businesses to India as well. Pakistan needs to recognise that the India-Afghanistan relationship is not transactional, nor it is not based on "encircling" Pakistan, but on other enduring links. 

It would be foolish to argue that New Delhi does not have strategic reasons to strengthen the Kabul government at the expense of the Taliban. But these are entirely defensive; India does not want the Taliban in Kabul not just because of their roles as sponsors of terror, but also because they provide "strategic depth" to Pakistan, place for the military of a geographically narrow country to retreat and manoeuvre. This strategic reason is well-understood - and it is completely different from the narrative being pushed by the Pakistan military, which wants to paint the Indian strategic approach to Afghanistan as being aggressive, focused on destabilising Pakistan, rather than defensive. 

It is important for the Modi government to seize this moment responsibly. There should be no hint of triumphalism in its approach - after all, a task is beginning, it has not been completed. It needs to stay on message and argue that Pakistan needs to clean up its act for the neighbourhood's sake. It cannot afford to give way to dreaming that Pakistan is on the brink of defeat or dismemberment. This government has a problem with ministers and officials who allow their mouths to run away with them on television. But nothing is more likely to stiffen the resolve of the Pakistani military. The government has to follow up on its independent relationship with Afghanistan and with its neighbours like Iran - and focus on building more infrastructure projects with obvious peaceful implications similar to the dam that Modi inaugurated last year. 

Islamabad has few good options left. An end to US sponsorship puts it on the back foot, ever more dependent on China. And it will soon discover that Chinese engagement comes with far more strings than the US'. There is no direct equivalent to the USAID funds that underwrite spending in Imran Khan's own provincial government in Khyber Pakhtunwa, for example - even if Khan calls US aid a "curse" now.

The problem is simply this: Pakistan has yet to accept that India is going to inevitably be the subcontinent's dominant power. That will require helping to stabilise Afghanistan - not as a subset of India's Pakistan policy, but for its own reasons. Trump is the first US president to accept the fact that this is inevitable. The sooner Pakistani elites and the military accept it as well, the sooner they get over their paranoia - and start working to fix their own troubled country.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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