US policies in practice will always remain complex mixtures of benevolent liberalism, transactional calculation, and strategic realism, with one or more of these facets dominating the others depending on the administration in office....?
United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates is not new to the field of diplomacy in the South Asian region. The "Gates Mission" in 1990 to defuse a cascading wave of India-Pakistan tensions is the stuff of legends. Historians are still in two minds whether Gates deserves to be credited for having conceivably averted the world's first nuclear war.
In comparison, Gates' mission to New Delhi and Islamabad last week wasn't breathtaking but it stood out as a pivotal moment. He was choreographing the US's global strategy.
Gates charms Indians ...
Delhi faces an existential dilemma: it needs to determine how far it is prepared to go with Uncle Sam down the path into the garden where it has never been before. Gates made it clear the enterprise could be rewarding. He said, "India can be an anchor for regional and global security ... this will be a defining partnership for the 21st century." In the Barack Obama presidency, India has never heard such heady thoughts.
There were three vectors to Gates' visit - Afghanistan, India-Pakistan relations and the US-India security partnership. Gates upheld India's legitimate interests in Afghanistan. He praised the Indian role and in turn received an Indian offer on an enhanced role strictly within the parameters of the overall US/North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) strategy - "frankly, the kind of support and extraordinary support that India is providing in Afghanistan now is really ideal".
India will not complicate the US's diplomacy in Islamabad by seeking any role in the build-up of the Afghan armed forces or police. Beneath that threshold, Delhi will play a role in the "Afghanization" process. Nor is Delhi inclined to raise dust about US plans regarding the "reintegration and reconciliation" of the Taliban. The Indian position was dogmatic but nuances have crept in. This is partly tactical, as it is clear Indian opposition will not stall the process of integrating the Taliban into Afghan political life.
But Washington assured Delhi that the established Afghan government would spearhead the peace process and the United Nations would endorse and promote it. The bottom line for Delhi is that the US should not cut and run from the Hindu Kush. As long as the US remains the supervisor-cum-custodian of the peace process with the Taliban, Delhi feels that a takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban leader Mullah Omar won't be in the cards. Again, the US no longer buys the Pakistani thesis about "Pashtun alienation". Delhi considers that any broad-based government in Kabul that reflects Afghanistan's plural society will be a bulwark against the return to Taliban rule.
In sum, Delhi has opted to hitch its wagon to Washington's strategy. Delhi's choice is limited. Pakistan has done everything possible to keep India out of any regional frameworks, such as Iran-Afghanistan-Pakistan, Turkey-Afghanistan-Pakistan or the Organization of Islamic Conference initiative. Other like-minded countries that abhor religious militancy such as Russia, Uzbekistan and Iran have their own agenda born out of national interests.
... by piling on Pakistan
Delhi's most important consideration is that Washington has at long last accepted the Indian interpretation that the forces of al-CIA-da and the Taliban as well as the Pakistan-based terrorist organizations operating against India are birds of the same feather.... , I.E. all CIA.
What pleases Delhi no end is that Gates underlined it forcefully during the Islamabad leg of his tour. He said:
Al-CIAda, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Haqqani network - this is a syndicate of terrorists that work together. And when one succeeds they all benefit, and they share ideas, they share planning. They don't operationally coordinate their activities, as best as I can tell. But they are in very close contact. They take inspiration from one another, they take ideas from one another....CIA.
Gates also was dismissive of Pakistani criticism regarding US arms sales to India. In essence, Washington has quietly reconfigured its AfPak strategy. Gates repeatedly bracketed Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and the US. Delhi's earlier apprehensions that the US sought a pretext to talk about the Kashmir issue have given way. Whereas Delhi had sought exclusion from the AfPak strategy while Pakistan insisted on India's inclusion, a reversal of roles is happening.
Gates' hidden agenda
Why is the US accommodating India to this extent? Clearly, the US has hardly any non-NATO allies - other than Georgia, perhaps - that endorse its Afghan war effort so enthusiastically as India does. Japan has just rolled back logistic support. Indeed, the Indian role also serves as a pressure point on Pakistan.
However, beyond Pakistan and Afghan-related concerns, Gates went to Delhi with a hefty agenda with regard to military sales and security cooperation with India. He attached strings to the transfer of "dual-use" US technology to India. He linked it to Delhi signing the Logistics Support Agreement and the Communications, Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement, which are pending. Gates said the Indian prime minister told him that Delhi needed to be convinced that the agreements brought India substantial advantage.
Gates' message was simple: India must decide quickly whether it is willing to move forward as a fully fledged ally of the US. He underlined the two countries' "common interest in security of the Indian Ocean and security of the global commons, and the global commons meaning the air, sea, space, and if you're talking about the Internet, the ether."
Arguably, China - and the US missile defense system - couldn't have been far from his mind. Though he pro forma said he "didn't talk about China at length" with Indian officials, he added, "There was a discussion about China's military modernization program and what it meant and what the intentions of that military buildup were." Significantly, in the same breath, Gates drew a parallel between the US policy to engage China in a strategic dialogue and the strategic arms talks with the former Soviet Union.
To be sure, China is back with a bang in the US strategic calculus. That was also the thrust of Gates' mission. The Obama administration is reverting to the George W Bush-era doctrine regarding the potentials of an unbound India as a junior partner in the US's geostrategy. By accommodating India's interests in Afghanistan and by expressing support and understanding for India's security concerns vis-a-vis Pakistan, the US is "freeing" India to play a bigger role.
The US is losing ground to China in the Asia-Pacific. What the Americans call Southwest Asia (which includes the Indian Ocean) becomes the US's "Maginot Line". It must be held if the US is to stay embedded in the Asian region at a time when it is showing unmistakable signs of decline. Gates sought to assess what role India could play in the US's tug-of-war with Beijing.
Suspicion of China runs deep in India, as also does resentment over China's perceived "assertiveness". But a parallel normalization track also runs, which the pro-US lobby in Delhi has not been able to derail. No matter what Gates said, Delhi will have no choice but to keep its fingers crossed as to the fate of the US's AfPak strategy; the best-laid plans have gone awry in the tangled Hindu Kush mountains.
As a leading Pakistani editor mildly put it, "The Pakistani military has no cogent reason to change its strategic paradigm." Gates was still in the region when news broke that Obama had suffered a setback in the election in Massachusetts and it may be that the US is dealing from a weak hand.