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October 26, 2020

Few options for India as Trump and Imran do the tango

Reading Time: 10 minutes

‘Imran Khan, or more accurately his army and ISI chiefs who accompanied him, have pulled off a coup. 

‘With Afghanistan in the bag, they can now retreat far from the Line of Control: they have strategic depth. 

‘Their terror camps do not have be in Balakot, within range of Indian warplanes. 

‘India can expect a few long hot summers of violence,’ says Rajeev Srinivasan. 

IMAGE: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan with US President Donald John Trump in the White House on July 22, 2019. Photograph: Jonathan Earnst / Reuters

It is hard to begrudge the Pakistani prime minister his claim that his interactions with the US president left him feeling he had won the (cricket) World Cup. 

Indeed, the live TV event from the Oval Office with Imran Khan was a bravura performance even for Trump: by turns hostile and cajoling, he also let loose what was probably a whopping untruth, that India had requested him to mediate between India and Pakistan regarding Kashmir. 

Trump, ever the dealmaker, must have made an instant decision that the soundbite would go over well at the time. 


The suggestion that India sought US mediation raised a lot of eyebrows in India, and was the subject of feverish denials. And it is quite likely that there was no such request, because there is a long-standing Indian mantra that Kashmir is a bilateral issue. 

But that misses the point: why the US is doing this, and what India can do. 

We’re seeing what American cultural icon Yogi Berra once referred to, pithily, as “deja vu all over again”. 

The Americans are stuck with a tar baby after their hasty entry into Afghanistan almost 20 years ago. They would love to declare victory and run for the exit. 

In going through old articles of mine, I found I had used virtually the same phrase several times in the past few years to describe what various US Presidents were doing at the time: 

George W Bush: “Make a lot of noise, declare victory and go home”. 

Barack Obama: “Surge, bribe, declare victory and run like hell”.

And now Trump is doing the exact same thing. It makes sense from the American point of view in the short run, because, in addition to the ‘body-bag syndrome’ (doesn’t look good on TV to see a lot of dead American soldiers in body bags), there is also Trump’s frequently-articulated (and not unreasonable) desire to pull back from foreign wars. 

In the medium term a precipitate exit would be bad, because a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan can well become once again a global centre for terror, which is what led to 9/11 and got America involved in the first place. 

Besides, if American abandons Afghanistan to Pakistan, the net beneficiary will be China, which will monopolise the mineral riches there (much as in Baluchistan, where Pakistan was just hit with a $5.9 billion arbitration verdict over non-performance in the case of the Reko Diq mine with large copper and gold deposits). 

Besides, the Chinese colonisation of Pakistan will extend to Afghanistan, and thus offer China greater strategic depth in central Asia (which was the prize Britain wanted to deny Russia in the 19th century Great Game). 

The US made a major miscalculation in this context, because access to land-locked Afghanistan is only through Pakistan, Iran or Russia. Since the US is on increasingly bad terms with Iran (and Russia), they are stuck with depending on Pakistan to even get out their heavy weapons when they retreat. It didn’t have to be so. 

I suggested in 2012 (external link) that India should mediate between the US and Iran. The Indian-backed Iranian port of Chabahar would have been a good alternative outlet to the sea. 

But other American considerations, such as pressure from Saudi Arabia and Israel, must have led to the closing of the Iran option. Similarly, American hostility has meant there is no way Russia will help. 

So the fact of the matter is that India needs to live with the possibility (even though it is abhorrent) that the Taliban will come back to power in Afghanistan, and deal with it. The Taliban is heady with anticipation already, as shown by their attempt to assassinate Amarullah Saleh a few days ago. 

The former intelligence chief, a close ally of the national hero Ahmed Shah Massoud, has consistently warned about the dangers of a Taliban return. Just as Massoud was assassinated by Taliban proxies two days before 9/11, the attempt on Saleh is ominous: it suggests that things will go from bad to worse. 

The US appears blase about this possibility, and especially its impact on India. There are several facts they seem to have forgotten. 

First, they entered Afghanistan specifically to get rid of the Taliban, which had organised the 9/11 carnage, and had sheltered Osama bin Laden. 

Second, the Taliban leadership is basically Pakistani army and ISI officers in baggy pants. The siege of Kunduz in 2001 showed this with crystal clarity. 

I wrote then that the CIA colluded with the ISI to airlift hundreds of Pakistani officers-pretending-to-be-Taliban to safety, or else Massoud’s Northern Alliance would have captured (and probably executed) them, effectively wiping out the Taliban. 

That ‘Airlift of Evil’ showed the US Deep State’s hands in that debacle: the military-industrial complex has invested heavily in Pakistan, especially in the ISI and the Army, for unfathomable reasons. 

Even the later calamity of a double agent blowing up their regional CIA station chief and several others (“Khost massacre”)  did not get the US Deep State to retreat from being useful idiots for the ISI. 

This was shown recently as well: in what was surely not a coincidence, after Imran Khan’s visit, the US announced a $125 million programme for F-16 support for Pakistan. That very day, they also announced a $670 million programme for C-17 support for India. 

Surely you can’t scream “India-Pak equal-equal” hyphenation from the rooftops any louder than this? Despite India’s best efforts, the US Deep State is keen on tying India down in a ‘South Asia’ ghetto. 

Third, the US is now engaged in a massive sales push to get India to do a variety of things. 

I am reminded of the days when the allegedly world-changing “nuclear deal” was dangled in front of India as a carrot, and boatloads of snake-oil salesmen landed up in India extolling its virtues. 

Well, India signed, but it’s not clear that it made all that much of a difference, except that India is buying a lot more American weapons these days than it used to. 

Among the sales techniques used is the new-found ‘Indo-Pacific’ meme, the talk about India becoming a quasi-ally via the Quad to contain China, and carrots such as immigration reform that would help Indians migrate to the US more easily. 

(I am aware that that is not necessarily in India’s interests as a nation though it may be good for some Indians, and that easing H1B is also not a big plus for India, but ace marketers have positioned these moves as good for India.) 

The objective is two-fold: one goal is to sell military hardware and bind India closely as a captive customer, and the second is to get the Afghan tar-baby off the US’ back and have India take on the increasingly-impossible military tasks there as the Americans declare victory and run. 

The US is upset that the Russian S-400 missile defense system has been preferred by India over their THAAD system; similarly, they would love to hawk their F-35 aircraft (which has had terrible reviews, massive cost over-runs, and then there was the case of the F-35 that crashed into the Sea of Japan (external link)). 

Now there’s nothing wrong in putting pressure on potential customers to sign up for your stuff, and the US is doing that in spades to India: forcing India to stop buying Iranian oil, the cancelling of preferential GSP tariffs on Indian exports, and constant exhortations about Indian tariffs on such things as Harley-Davidson motorcycles (which cost more than most cars in India), and tirades about the (tiny) Indian trade surplus in goods with the US (which is more than made up by the deficit in trade in services). 

So the only option open to India in Afghanistan (considering that India has been completely excluded from the talks there) is to try and appease Trump by buying American weapons. 

But I am not sure that will be a good idea. 

On the one hand, it may not lead to anything anyway. Indian leaders, on trips to the US, have for years sought to mollify them by announcing large weapons deals, and this has not led to any improvement in the Deep State’s attitudes towards India (and PM Modi will probably do the same thing on his upcoming visit to the US). 

There is also the secondary effect of hobbling India’s indigenous weapons development programmes. 

I have long wondered why ISRO is able to deliver rockets, but DRDO is unable to deliver warplanes and tanks. 

A savvy academic told me a possible reason: to design and test an airplane takes millions of man-hours of work and thousands of hours of flight testing, as well as many, many failures. 

India has never been able to expend this on its warplane efforts because by the time the project looks like it’s getting traction, foreign vendors will suddenly lower the price of their (beginning-to-be-obsolescent) earlier-generation planes, and from pure financial considerations, it is difficult to say no to the offer. 

The other side of the innovator’s dilemma: competitors are handicapping India’s weapons makers by tempting defence department babus and bean-counters with “offers they cannot refuse”. And that’s just the legal bit. 

There is also general American unpredictability and un-dependability. Those with long memories will remember the nuclear fuel for Tarapore, where there was an agreement with the weight of a treaty, which the Americans casually and unilaterally just trashed. 

Having said that, America is much better than China as far as India is considered: China is a dependable enemy. They will always do whatever hurts India the most. 

The real answer, of course, is to build up India’s economic and military power and make it a G3, not a G2. 

Brahma Chellaney recently pointed out Kissinger’s axiom that “It is dangerous to be America’s enemy, but it is fatal to be America’s friend”. India should remain somewhere in between: a wary associate. 

There is no question that there are many American technologies that India needs in preference to what China is hawking (eg, in 5G India should just say no to Huawei). 

And India should use the same tactic back against the US: make a huge deal about how the US will be unable to contain China without India’s active support (true), how India is going to be a major market for US companies (true), and how India will be eternally grateful (not true). 

India doesn’t have too many other options. Imran Khan, or more accurately his army and ISI chiefs who accompanied him, have pulled off a coup. 

With Afghanistan in the bag, they can now retreat far from the Line of Control: they have strategic depth. 

Their terror camps do not have be in Balakot, within range of Indian warplanes. 

India can expect a few long hot summers of violence. 

By the way, isn’t it ominous how violence all over India, ratcheted up after the elections, has been just as quickly ratcheted down after the Imran Khan-Donald Trump summit?

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