Is Rex Tillerson’s visit a new dawn for South Asia?

US plan to end the Afghanistan war is, without dispute, the most ambitious diplomatic initiative by the country the region has seen in years.

Written by Praveen Swami | Updated: October 24, 2017 6:51:21 pm
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson steps off the plane, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar. Tillerson had meetings with leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq in one day. (Source: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, Pool)

“Two bookends of stability on either side of the globe,” is how United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described the US and India, in a speech last month. He has now arrived in New Delhi, along with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, looking to draw up a design for the region held up by these two great pillars: together, he hopes, they can coerce Islamabad into snapping ties with jihadists, thus ending the war in Afghanistan and reducing the risks of India-Pakistan war.

It is, without dispute, the most ambitious diplomatic initiative by the US the region has seen in years, but is it the light at the end of the tunnel or just another false dawn?

There is no way to tell; however, there are good reasons to be sceptical of the gushing prognosis emanating from New Delhi’s flattery-addicted strategic affairs community.

First up, Afghanistan: in August, President Donald Trump — nudged by Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis — announced a reversal of his earlier commitment to bring US troops home. The United States, Trump argued, could not countenance “safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America”. Thus, “conditions on the ground — not arbitrary timetables — will guide our strategy from now on”.

There was no definition, though, of what these conditions were and how they might be achieved. Behind the silence is a simple truth: the troop numbers are just not there to wage a protracted counter-insurgency campaign that might conceivably succeed.

In addition to the United States’ estimated 15,000 troops, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police have 352,000 to guard a 652,864 sq km nation. India, by contrast, has an estimated 325,000 troops, backed up by some 85,000 police and 7,000 central police, to protect the 42,241 sq. km.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban, and other jihadist organisations, can be defeated in combat but the government can’t hold the ground it recaptures. Operating in rugged mountains with extremely poor road connectivity, the Taliban can also cross into their sanctuaries in Pakistan with relative ease.

US forces have confronted this reality ever since the Korean war in 1950 and haven’t found a solution since. Their superior technology allowed them to level Saddam Husain’s Iraq but failed to prevent the birth of an Islamist insurgency. The Islamic State has been bombed into extinction but the forces are inadequate to contain the regional power struggles this has unleashed.

For Tillerson, like many analysts, the solution is self-evident: coerce Pakistan into acting against the Taliban, using the United States’ substantial financial leverage. For all the glowing language that surrounds its relationship with Beijing, Islamabad is still dependent on aid from United States-dominated global financial institutions. It’s not insignificant, moreover, that it continues to seek western technology, like Saab-made early warning aircraft, in spite of acquisitions made from China.

Pressure on Pakistan doesn’t come cost-free: pull the leash too hard, the argument goes, and it might snap, leading the United States to lose whatever leverage it has over the country’s nuclear weapons.

The notion that Pakistan could end up becoming the next North Korea or Iran is from the United States’ point of view, an even bigger problem than terrorism. Its nuclear weapons, after all, could end up in the hands of terrorists, or a jihadist-led state that could conceivably replace the current order.

From 1999 onwards, the United States has pushed General Pervez Musharraf’s regime to de-escalate tensions with India. It succeeded in bringing about a sharp reduction of terrorism in Kashmir but only because Musharraf did not want to risk war with India while he was committed in Afghanistan. In spite of threats and inducements, the United States failed to change Pakistan’s behaviour in Afghanistan.

It’s hard to believe the outcome will be any different this time.

Tillerson’s job isn’t helped by the none-too-hidden chaos in the White House itself — chaos which has led many to wonder if the Secretary, in fact, enjoys the confidence of the man who makes the final decisions, President Donald Trump. Earlier this month, the head of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, Senator Bob Corker, accused Trump of backing the United States into self-imposed crisis — for example, giving itself only the binary choice of war with Iran or North Korea, or having to succumb to their nuclear threats.

“You cannot publicly castrate your own Secretary of State without giving yourself that binary choice,” Corker told The Washington Post. His comments came just days after the President tweeted his belief that Tillerson was “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with North Korea.

President Trump, more concerned with gaining points at home than developing a grand strategy abroad, has already shown his willingness to reverse course on Pakistan in return for baubles — witness the praise he lavished on Islamabad after it helped release a Canadian family held hostage by jihadists.

There’s no doubt at all that India-United States are on firm ground. It’s possible that New Delhi will be able to persuade Tillerson to support its push for state-of-the-art technologies like armed drones. There’s hope, too, for a more supportive United States posture on China, a regime Tillerson has made clear he sees as violating well-established global norms.

It’s also possible that Tillerson will secure the big prize, a new architecture for South Asia but it’s always useful to have a Plan B handy: going to war without planning for failure is a recipe for disaster. In essence, strategy means the successful marriage of means and ends. In this case, it isn’t clear the means lead to the desired big end.

Figuring out how to sustain a long, low-intensity war against jihadists in Afghanistan and Pakistan might not be as sexy as drawing up grand strategy but it may be a more achievable end.

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