The Mattis Visit: A New Diplomatic Indo-US partnership for Afghanistan?
Vol 11 Issue 4 Sep- Oct 2017
A Brief on the discussions between the US Secretary of Defence and the Indian Defebce Minister
Wednesday, October 11, 2017
The United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ visit to India last month, the very first by a US cabinet-level personage of the Trump administration must be seen in the context of the August exposition of the ‘new’ Afghan Policy by President Donald Trump. Besides the meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Secretary Mattis met with the NSA AjitDoval and his counterpart, the newly appointed Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
‘Before the visit’ expectations from the high profile visit had been that India-US defence ties would elevate to the ‘next level’ with a transformed US view of an economically and militarily stronger India being in America’s national interest.
The three broad areas covered in these interactions, particularly with Ms Sitharaman are:
• The Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI).
• Issues relating to maritime security in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region
• Indo-US cooperation in Afghanistan.
While The first two issues have been long ongoing, there was expectation on discussions on proposals to manufacture the F-16 and F-18A under the Make in India campaign, besides identifying new projects under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiatives (DTTI). Stoic silence from discussants on both sides as also in official releases are adequate indicators that this aspect requires further deliberation. As is generally known, while the Trump administration desires to sell F-18 and F-16 fighter planes to India, the manufacturing companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have offered to assemble these planes in India. Any finality would have merited a ‘big ticket’ announcement that has not yet come. It is however Afghanistan – where there is expected variation in the perceptions on both sides of what India can do and not do that dominated the discussion.
The US expectations from India have been known and well-discussed. The best case scenario from its perspective being Indian boots on ground to enhance existing combat capability, supplementing or even replacing US and NATO Forces whose success in achieving their operational goals appear amorphous. The push appeared to goad India into accepting being a “ net security provider” and play a crucial role in the security and stability of Afghanistan and in the region raised some eyebrows.
On this aspect, Ms Sitharaman’s stance has been both astute and candid when she categorically stated that “there shall not be any boots on the ground from India” in Afghanistan. This would be a decision with far reaching repercussions both for India and the region, stretch already thin spread combat and military resources beyond a point and most importantly, be left in a military and political lurch if other ‘participating’ forces chose to wind up their missions, a factor over which India would have no control. Even in its present security situation, Indian military leadership has been ringing bells on the possibility of a two-front war. So, a third and actively operational military deployment in Afghanistan, even resource wise would be potentially catastrophic.
Notwithstanding, Afghanistan has been amongst India’s most abiding friends both at the Government and ‘people to people’ levels. A long standing shared culture has stood the test of time, many a time against great pressure and odds. India has been providing development assistance to Afghanistan over decades and only recently, just prior to Secretary Mattis’ visit, its Minister for External Affairs had visited Kabul to attend the second meeting of the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Council meeting during which the India promised to invest in 116 new, high-impact development projects in 31 suburban and rural communities in Afghanistan. So, the Indian commitment to Afghanistan’s development not just continues but is strengthened.
Even on the Security aspect, India did not completely disappoint Secretary Mattis and evinced interest in expanding its existing military training program in Indian military academies to Afghan police officers, which translates to enhancing capabilities and empowering Afghanistan’s own forces to prepare for and resolve the issues of their nation.
Another major success from the Indian perspective has been on the aspect of terrorism, with Ms Sitharaman’s obtaining from Secretary Mattis a clear India bent statement that “there can be no tolerance of terrorist safe havens.” Even Prime Minster Modi reportedly asked for the US to raise the issue of terrorism during visits to Pakistan. The ramifications in Islamabad have been perceptible with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif seeking support from China, Turkey, and Iran regarding the United States’ harsher line on Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Army Chief, General Qamar JavedBajwa, will visit Russia.
In sum, Mattis’ important visit to India indicates the status quo in Afghanistan is shifting and the diplomatic manoeuvring has begun with, as of yet, unclear effects on Afghanistan’s stability. However, India’s role in Afghanistan will continue to remain vital.
So, has the expected outreach to the ‘next level’ materialised? Not yet. But some cogs in some wheels are undoubtedly gaining traction as can be gauged by the statements of the two leaders.