On December 20, James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defence, had resigned stating that he had significant policy differences with President Donald Trump. He had, however, offered to stay on in the job until February 1, 2019, to help ensure a smooth transition. However, in what can only be construed as an act of petulance, within 72 hours, Trump chose to fire Mattis and replace him with Patrick Shanahan, the Deputy Secretary, a former Boeing executive, as the Acting Defence Secretary.
Mattis, as is well-known across South Asia, and especially in New Delhi, had for the most part sustained the policies of the Barack Obama administration toward India. Specifically, he had participated in the first US-India “two plus two dialogue” with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo. More to the point, in his tenure, the two countries had moved the security partnership forward, signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement. This accord was of importance and had been hanging fire for over a decade. New Delhi has also been pleased with the Trump administration’s decision to cut off assistance to Pakistan for its unwillingness to end its support for terror in Afghanistan. This decision had constituted a marked departure in American policy as previous administrations had only admonished Pakistan, with few, if any, material changes in its behaviour.
What are the possible implications of Mattis’ departure for US policy towards India and South Asia? There is little or no question that his resignation (and subsequent removal) from office will have an impact. Unlike his predecessor, Shanahan hails from the corporate world. He may have had extensive dealings with the department he now heads but he brings little or no foreign or security policy experience to the office. More, he has no particular grasp of regional affairs or any sensitivity toward key strategic issues in South Asia.
His lack of policy experience and his lack of knowledge of regional security issues is likely to prove consequential. Almost inevitably, the momentum that Mattis had so ably sustained over the past two years in building the strategic partnership with New Delhi is bound to lose steam. Among other matters, it is believed that Mattis had developed a rapport with his Indian counterpart, the Minister of Defence, Nirmala Sitharaman. It remains an open question if Shanahan can pick up where Mattis left off. That said, it is also unlikely that he will seek to substantially alter the course that the Trump administration had embarked upon after assuming office. As is evident from other policy areas, in this administration, the president remains the ultimate arbiter of policy choices.
That said, there are at least three compelling reasons to believe that there will be policy continuity. Mattis felt obliged to leave office (before being summarily dismissed) because in his own words his policy preferences were not aligned with those of the president. Shanahan, who according to press reports, is close to Trump, is unlikely to take issue with the president’s stated policy goals. In fact, there is some evidence that Trump chose him for this position because he is unlikely to take issue with his “America First” policy orientation.
Additionally, it also needs to be borne in mind that as in New Delhi, there is a substantial permanent bureaucracy in Washington, DC. These men and women, who are able civil servants, provide a degree of institutional ballast to every administration. Trump’s policy vagaries notwithstanding, they will make every effort to ensure that the incoming Acting Secretary is kept abreast of the policies that had been formulated and implemented toward South Asia under his predecessor.
Finally, despite the American aid cut-off, the new regime in Pakistan under Prime Minister Imran Khan has evinced little inclination to substantially change its policy orientation on the future of Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan. For informed observers of the country, this should come as no surprise. The security establishment within the country is so deeply entrenched that even a flamboyant prime minister has limited room for policy manoeuvre. Since Trump has convinced himself of Pakistan’s perfidy in Afghanistan, the lack of any visible policy shift will only reinforce his instincts.
All these factors do underscore the likelihood of policy continuity. However, there is an important straw in the wind that New Delhi would be wise to pay careful heed to. This involves the future of American policy towards Afghanistan. Mattis, as the former head of the United States Central Command, had overseen operations in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2013. Earlier, as a colonel, he had actual combat experience in the country. Consequently, it is entirely reasonable to surmise that he would have attempted to dissuade Trump from pursuing a precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan — one of Trump’s campaign promises and one that he is inclined to keep.
With Mattis out of office, with a more pliant Acting Defence Secretary and faced with a range of recent domestic political setbacks, Trump may well decide that the moment has indeed arrived to cut America’s losses of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Since paying scrupulous heed to policy advice on strategic issues from specialists within the administration is hardly Trump’s hallmark, an abrupt drawdown of American forces from the country cannot be dismissed out of hand. This would especially be the case if he sees his poll numbers sag further than the current 40 per cent or so.
Such an American departure from Afghanistan, needless to say, would have dramatic adverse consequences for the future of the troubled land. It would also redound significantly to Pakistan’s benefit and to India’s detriment. It hardly requires any great leap of imagination to see that the security establishment within Pakistan would gleefully step into the breach. Almost invariably, an expanded Pakistani footprint in the country would threaten India’s hard-won gains. Since the possibility of a significant American withdrawal of forces cannot be written off, policymakers in New Delhi should carefully weigh their options in the event this outcome were to materialise.