The Trump administration’s diplomatic strategy toward South Asia, as enumerated in its December 2017 National Security Strategy, places a high priority in seeking “a Pakistan that is not engaged in destabilising behaviour and a stable and self-reliant Afghanistan”. In addition, the administration’s strategy is to “deepen our strategic partnership with India and support its leadership role in Indian Ocean security and throughout the broader region”. Key objectives that deserve to be, but aren’t prioritised are seeking improved ties between India and Pakistan and reducing nuclear dangers in the region. Leaving these regrettable omissions aside, how is the administration doing by its own yardsticks?
Not too well, but there are extenuating circumstances. Important diplomatic gears are stuck on the Subcontinent. The governments of India and Pakistan aren’t moving to improve relations, at least not any time soon. Newly installed Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, with seeming support from his army chief, has notably said that he is willing to take two steps forward to Narendra Modi’s one, but this choreography isn’t about to start. At this juncture, they are more likely to take two steps backwards than forwards. It’s hard to improve prospects for a settlement in Afghanistan when Pakistan and India remain at loggerheads.
Nor are the Trump administration’s national security objectives likely to be advanced when Modi and Imran find it difficult to make headway with Washington. Donald Trump is palpably uncomfortable with being hugged by Modi, and he appears disinterested in Imran’s desire to turn the page. Besides, the price of improved ties with Washington appears high to decision makers in both countries, while calculations of presumed benefits seem modest. Washington’s influence is on the wane, here as elsewhere, and Capitol Hill’s fondness for sanctions certainly hasn’t helped.
It doesn’t take much to derail attempts to improve ties between India and Pakistan. Any such effort can embarrass leaders making the effort when spoilers derail progress, as they are inclined to do. Little did prime minister A B Vajpayee know when he embarked on his symbolism-freighted visit to Lahore in 1999 that secret implementation of the Kargil operation had already begun. Likewise, the 2008 Mumbai carnage directed at luxury hotels, the central train station and other targets put an end to backchannel efforts to revive public diplomacy.
Michael Krepon is Co-Founder of the Stimson Center. This piece originally ran in The Herald (Pakistan) on October 15, 2018. You can read the full article here.