Pak denied strikes but India can’t count on similar restraint in future: Joshua T White, Obama administration official

Excerpts from an interview with Joshua T White who served at the Barack Obama White House as senior adviser & director for South Asian affairs at the National Security Council till January 2017

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi | Updated: June 8, 2017 9:44:34 am
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Joshua T. White is Associate Professor of the Practice of South Asia Studies and Fellow at the Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asia Studies at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Till January 2017, he served at the Obama White House as Senior Advisor & Director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. He had served in the Pentagon Senior Advisor for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he supported then Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in advancing the U.S.-India Defense Technology and Trade Initiative. White spoke to SUSHANT SINGH about the India-Pakistan, Kashmir and the Indian expectations from the Trump administration.

Based on your experience in the Obama National Security Council till January this year, how do you read the current state of bilateral relations between India and Pakistan?

In a word, disheartening. There is plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the border. But it seems to me that the decisive factor in preventing rapprochement remains the unwillingness of the Pakistani military to countenance any meaningful efforts to normalize ties with India, or to substantially rein in those militant groups that threaten regional security. With a Pakistani general election slated for next year, I’m not optimistic that this dynamic is likely to change anytime soon.

Was the situation in Kashmir, starting from last year, a concern for the Obama administration? Did you advise the Modi government about it?

It was a concern. Precisely because the United States and India share a commitment to human rights and democratic values, we both felt free to speak up when we believed that the other side was not living up to its commitments.

I do think there’s some cause for introspection in India regarding the latest wave of tensions in Jammu and Kashmir. Like many of India’s friends here in the United States, I’ve been troubled by the public — and at times, official — support for the Indian army major who used a local man as a human shield. We know from our own history that these sorts of actions are, in the end, unproductive and not befitting a great and diverse country.

Were you guys taken by surprise by “surgical strikes” after the Uri terror attack? What was the extent of the “surgical strikes”, in your view?

In the immediate aftermath of Uri attack we very quickly established high-level consultations with New Delhi to offer our support, compare assessments, and urge a measure of restraint. I don’t want to say precisely what was discussed and when, but we certainly sympathized with the gravity and persistence of the cross-border threat that India faces. And we were gratified that the Indian government chose to communicate — rapidly and credibly — that its action was limited in nature.

My friends in India have focused quite a lot on teasing out the particulars of the government’s so-called ‘surgical strikes’. As they should. But I would hope that that doesn’t distract us from the more fundamental question, which is how New Delhi’s actions might be read as precedent and might change the nature of military escalation in the future. After Uri, Pakistan chose to deny that the Indian strikes had even taken place. That opened a welcome path for de-escalation. We can’t count on similar Pakistani restraint in the future; nor should the Indian public be overconfident and expect that a repeat of India’s playbook from Uri would necessarily produce as tidy and limited an outcome next time.

How strong were India’s complaints against Pakistan over cross-border terrorism, say after Pathankot or Gurdaspur? Is there any way in which you guys were able to impress upon Pakistan to act against India-centric terror groups? What more could have been done?

We heard the Indian concerns loud and clear. And candidly, there was real sympathy at the highest levels of the U.S. government for the threat that India faces from cross-border terrorism. All people of good faith should find it appalling that groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and their front organizations operate, fundraise, and even conduct rallies openly in Pakistan. It’s an affront to UN resolutions, and a dereliction of Pakistan’s own public commitments not to discriminate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ militants.

I have to believe that there are occasions in which Pakistan might quietly constrain the militant operations of these groups. But it’s clear that the government has done little to dismantle their infrastructure or limit their public profile and legitimacy.

You know as well as I do that the United States has not been able to meaningfully shift Pakistan’s calculus with respect to these organizations. India tends to overestimate American leverage, and underestimate the risks that the United States would incur were we to rupture our relationship with Pakistan. But even if we were willing to accept much greater risk to that relationship, it’s simply very difficult to compel a country to change a policy that it adheres to for ideological or strategic reasons.

If there is a silver lining there, it is that I see a growing recognition both inside and outside of Pakistan that the activities of these groups could increasingly complicate even Pakistan’s closest relationships, and could threaten its standing in the global financial system. You’re beginning to see this with the serious efforts by the Financial Action Task Force to insist that Pakistan constrain funding of India-focused militant groups, or face real financial effects in the global market.

Trump administration remains an unknown quantity in South Asia. What would you advise the officials here who are still groping in the dark about his policies?

From what I understand, President Trump takes a generally positive view of India. I think he appreciates India’s economic vitality, strategic potential, and the close cultural ties that our countries have forged. That said, his engagements with foreign counterparts tend to be rather transactional; he’s always looking for ‘the deal’.

This presents something of a challenge for India. Unlike Japan, India isn’t in a position to mobilize capital to support infrastructure investment or job creation in America on a wide scale. Unlike China, India doesn’t have leverage — real or perceived — over a top-tier national security challenge like North Korea. And the tensions over immigration, education visas in the United States, and climate policy are bound to persist as sources of tension.

With this as a backdrop, by advice would be three-fold. First, focus on building a strong personal relationship with the President. As I saw first-hand in staffing and advising President Obama, this takes times. It takes phone calls. It takes reaching out on a regular basis to compare notes on global issues, not just parochial ones. I’m hopeful that the leaders’ meeting, which we anticipate will take place later in June, will be a venue for kicking off this kind of rapport.

Second, India needs to think seriously and creatively about areas in which it can offer increased access to its markets for U.S. firms. I’m not suggesting that it should do so unilaterally or altruistically, but unless U.S. companies feel like there is some movement on this front, it’s hard to see the Trump administration sustaining a high level of energy on the India relationship.

Third and finally, both countries should work toward building a collaborative response to China’s growing influence across Asia. This isn’t to say that the goal should be containment. But there should be candid, practical discussions about how to align our economic and security policies in the Indo-Pacific, and ensure more broadly that countries across Asia are not unduly swayed by their acceptance of Chinese investment. Making this kind of collaboration work depends critically on two things: a decision by the United States to move toward a more realistic and stable China policy that recognizes China as a strategic competitor and avoids subsuming the Sino-American relationship to any single issue such as North Korea; and a commitment to sustain high-level investment in the U.S.-India-Japan dialogue, which has emerged over the last several years as one of the most promising new developments in the Asian political architecture.

What was the difference in your own dealings between the UPA government under Dr Manmohan Singh and the BJP govt under Modi?

I think that one of Prime Minister Modi’s most consequential foreign policy accomplishments has been his ability to redefine India’s big tent diplomacy in such a way as to substantially deepen collaboration with the United States while preserving India’s strikingly independent approach to global affairs.

I’ve watched this most closely on security issues. I started working on our defense trade relationship with India under then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter back in 2012, at a time when ‘DTI’ had only one ’T’ and we bickered about whether that letter stood for ‘trade’ or ‘technology’. Even as the Defense Department took huge strides during that period in approving the release of sensitive technologies to India, the defense relationship felt rather one-sided. The UPA government was exasperatingly cautious on defense issues.

The BJP government has been a much more ambitious partner. The fact that our governments can now openly discuss collaboration in sensitive areas such as anti-submarine warfare would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. Our defense trade relationship has flourished. And our counterterrorism and intelligence conversations have matured significantly.

All of that is welcome. But my own instinct is that we can go considerably further together without India being at risk of sacrificing its autonomy. In some domains, the Indian government is still quite cautious. From the American vantage point, it is a strange partnership indeed in which India expects to receive some of our most sensitive military technologies, but resists engaging in basic joint naval patrols, or reacts with deep suspicion to cooperative defense activities.

As you know, it took over ten years to finalize a very basic logistics agreement. Our Defense Department usually negotiates these at the level of a lieutenant colonel, but when it came to India these negotiations went to the highest political levels, and the text was finalized only minutes before Prime Minister Modi walked into the Oval Office.

I’d like to hope that one of the fruits of Modi’s more vigorous engagement with the United States has been that the Indian public — and the bureaucracy — increasingly recognize that the United States genuinely wants to build a broad partnership with India, and that it is not demanding exclusivity or any entangling commitments that are inconsistent with India’s broad base of global relationships.

Have the India-US relations reached their full potential? If not, why not? What more needs to be done?

Not by a long shot. I wouldn’t bet against the U.S.-India relationship, in part because India is itself acting more assertively on the world stage. It was not lost on the Obama administration that India was playing a progressively more constructive role in shaping global issues and outcomes — e.g., on climate, internet governance, and global maritime norms. Even though there were real challenges in other domains, such as at the WTO, we were acutely aware of India’s rising prominence in shaping the global debate.

Clearly, the Trump administration takes a dimmer view of some of these global institutions and norms. All the same, I think that India can find areas in which to demonstrate its leadership bona fides on a global stage on issues that President Trump cares about — bolstering counter-terrorism cooperation, shaping the rise of China, and being a ‘burden-sharing’ security provider in the Indo-Pacific.

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