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“The U.S has leverage with Pakistan, but not without risks” (hindu)

Joshua T. White is Associate Professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. As Senior Advisor & Director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council in Barack Obama White House, he was involved with the full range of South Asia policy issues pertaining to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan. He played a key role in advancing the U.S.-India relationship and was instrumental in shaping Mr. Obama’s policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan as well. He shares his views on President Donald Trump’s new South Asia policy and is implications for India, in an interview.

How is President Trump’s regional strategy for South Asia different from President Obama’s?

In sustaining the U.S troops, he did the right and sensible thing. Obama White House examined the risk of drawdown and the outcomes looked ugly. Withdrawal would have been unwise. Significant scaling up would also have been unwise. That is the lesson from the surge (in the number of U.S troops earlier). We could not have fundamentally changed the balance of power without a large number of forces there for ever. No timeline is a wise strategy. Increased pressure is likely to push Pakistan into a corner, unlikely to deliver results in terms of cooperation on critical security issues, and it will make Pakistan feel vulnerable and cornered. I don’t have high hopes, though I give them credit for the rhetorical clarity. I am also not sure that if Pakistan did most or all what we want them to do, in terms of dismantling safe havens of the Haqqani network, facilitating talks with the Taliban, that it would make a meaningful change in the balance in Afghanistan. The insurgence in Afghanistan is organic, largely organically funded. The safe havens help the Taliban, but I don’t think, they are vital to the Taliban. So even if, unexpectedly the pressure on Pakistan produces results, I don’t think its impact on the situation in Afghanistan will be significant.

The president’s focus on India and the Indian role in Afghanistan was curious. My sense is that the White House is sending a broader signal about India’s role in the region. That is good. India has stakes, in Afghanistan. In my view, India’s reluctance in providing security assistance in overt and meaningful ways, is , at least since 2012 not a product of the U.S pressuring India to be restrained. It is a product of India’s own self-restraint. There is a view that the U.S has been heavy-handed in preventing India from having a more robust role in security affairs of Afghanistan. That may be true for a season but since 2012, the US has been much more open and the it has been the Indian government - i think for some very good reason - somewhat reticent in taking a bigger role in Afghanistan, which may have meant an even greater Pakistani reaction.

The reticence was mutually agreed ?

Prior to about 2012 or 2013 there were ways in which the U.S signalled to India that greater engagement on security issues could be problematic. After 2012-13, the U.S sent signals that India should make its own choices in this regard. I think New Delhi recognized economic assistance and political engagement was highly productive, and security assistance only limited to providing some equipment and training in India, was reasonable. I think New Delhi has been anxious and unwilling to go beyond that. It has not been because the U.S strong-armed India not to do it.

But there appeared to be some enthusiasm in about the larger role being proposed by President Trump. Do you think India is giving up its reticence?

Economic assistance and meaningful political engagement will be the best way forward. I don’t get the sense that New Delhi is under pressure from Washington to contribute in a dramatic way into Afghanistan.

This is called a “regional” strategy. What is Trump administration approach in dealing with other countries in the region?

Every administration says it has a regional strategy. The goals of regional engagement change over time. During periods in the Obama administration there was a regional strategy designed to ensure that countries in the region would not spoil efforts to reach out to to Taliban. There were structures to do that. In this administration we have not seen much attention to much of the regional players. It is understandable. For instance, it is very difficult to engage Russia on Afghanistan….

But you (the Obama administration) did engage Russia on Syria, on Iran….

Yes, it is absolutely possible. In fact it is necessary. We engaged Iran on issues related to Afghanistan. This administration is reluctant to do so. And it it not clear that they see the value. Obama administration was focussed on ensuring that countries in the region come to common view on the value of engaging the Taliban. Trump administration’s view on engaging the Taliban in somewhat hazy. Secretary Tillerson has spoken about the need for engaging the Taliban, but that message has not come out strongly from the White House. There is clearly some confusion. India has been an important part of the conversation always, and it is good that the Trump administration is involving India, but I must make it clear that from 2012-13, the U.S has continuously engaged India on the status of Afghanistan. We sent senior military officers to Delhi, providing regular briefings, and holding consultations.

When we speak of a regional strategy now, countries like Iran and Russia are not part of it now..

I don’t think we have a regional strategy now. A regional strategy must have an objective. It is not apparent that there is regional objective that is outlined for Afghanistan’s future.

So the regional strategy is scaring Pakistan with the prospect of more Indian role in Afghanistan?

In my view, there is value in signalling that the U.S sees India as a critical partner for Afghanistan. but there is also a risk because, feeding Pakistan’s anxiety about Indian influence in Afghanistan is not necessarily helpful to either Washington or New Delhi.

Obama administration occasionally sought to link the Kashmir issue with the situation in Afghanistan. But Trump administration has no such plans, it appears….

The Obama administration was careful take a line that Kashmir is a dispute to be resolved between Indian and Pakistan. There was always one view in the Obama administration for closer interlinking between the Kashmir problem and the problem in Afghanistan arguing that if Pakistan feels more secure in its dealing with India. it will behave more responsibly. That was not a dominant view. And I see this administration taking a similar line. We have seen that the Trump administration has spoken more clearly and more directly, about safe havens, not only for Afghan focussed groups, but also for Indian focused groups. But again, near the end of the Obama administration there were some strong statements and acknowledgement on that issue. So I see continuity. There is no sea change in that approach.

During the nuclear security summit in 2016, Obama spoke about South Asia being a nuclear flashpoint. This administration appears to share that view. Do you agree?

Yes, this administration recognizes the nuclear risk. No U.S administration speaks voluminously about this, but I sense this administration also considers Pakistan’s vertical proliferation -its development of new delivery systems, war heads, intentional efforts to lower the threshold and create ambiguity around that use, has introduced safety and security risks. That is not to say that India has nothing to contribute to this risk. That was the view earlier, that is the view of this administration. Conversations on nuclear issues have been constant part of U.S engagement with Pakistan, and many of those conversations are not in public domain for understandable reasons. This administration recognises that risk.

Secretary Tillerson has said India should also contribute to changing Pakistan’s behaviour. What would such a proposal entail?

Secretary Tillerosn was rather cryptic. There are always things that India can do even in the realm of diplomatic process. I think India will do well to establish multiple levels of dialogue, lower diplomatic to highest diplomatic levels, and sustain them even when there are tensions. Perhaps Secretary was referring to the necessity of sustained dialogue, there are ways to talk about CBMs between the two countries; there are particular disputes such as about water. There are ways in which both sides could step up engagement. I don’t think the Secretary sought to put the onus on India. It was about engaging Pakistan constructively even when India and the US are disappointed with certain aspects of Pakistan’s behaviour.

India believes that surgical strike could be one way to change Pakistan’s behaviour…

I think, some of my Indian friends have been overconfident about what the surgical strikes accomplished and about India’s ability to do them again. I worry that India has over-interpreted its success, it is not evident that those actions change Pakistan’s behavior and if India does that again, Pakistan may not respond the same way again.

From an Indian perspective, the Obama administration’s policies in Af-Pak was not sensitive to Indian concerns while both countries had greater convergence in Asia-Pacific. What is your perspective?

I actually…I thought we had a good dialogue on Afghanistan. We didn’t always see eye to eye, we appreciated our Indian counterparts’ anxieties about engaging with the Taliban, anxieties about the future of Afghanistan and what it would mean for India. We had candid conversations on that. Our dialogue on Pakistan was more definitely more stilted - India came to expect that whatever the U.S said about Pakistan probably would make a difference in Pakistan’s behaviour. Within the U.S government also there was a reluctance to talk to India about Pakistan. So those conversations were somewhat less productive. But every country has its own individual perspective and I am proud that we were able to deepen the relationship with India, and had candid conversations on all Indian concerns and openly talked about our disagreements and moved the relationship forward. In South east Asia there is convergence not only in strategic objectives but also of tactics, where as Pakistan was a topic of more complicated conversations.

For decades, America has tried to pay Pakistan for good behaviour but that has not happened. One could argue that Trump’s warning may work better - a sledgehammer may work better than bribes?

Pakistan has in a number important respects, been a meaningful counterterrorism partner of the U.S, for years. It was a partner in decimating Al Qaida’s presence, it has been a partner in dealing with a number of security threats. You can argue whether the amount of money that US paid to Pakistan provided value to the U.S, but it in some respects it remains a meaningful partnership. And I am not sure that my Indian colleagues always appreciate that dimension - what Pakistan has meant for the U.S in dealing with important terrorism threats. Sledgehammer approach to Pakistan comes with some very significant risks to the U.S.

But do you think, the President has a sledgehammer approach to Pakistan?

We don’t know that. The president’s language on Pakistan prefigured tough measures. But he didn’t announce them. It may simply be an effort to pressure Pakistan. We don’t yet know whether the administration is willing to follow through on these tough measures. Some tough measures can have greater effects than others. There have been reports about sanctioning Pakistani officials or government organizations. That may get the attention of Pakistani government but that may also invite retaliation. The U.S still depends on communication through Pakistan for operations in Afghanistan.

Are you saying that the U.S has no leverage at all with Pakistan?

No. The U.S has leverage with Pakistan, but these are leverages that come with risks. U.S has influence over international financial assistance to Pakistan from WB, IMF etc, and it has to weigh the benefits of using that leverage against the risks of potentially politicizing those institutions, and further deterioration of Pakistan’s economic health. Similarly there are risks to counterterrorism action; there are risks to publicly shaming Pakistan for its misbehavior. The U.S has leverage, but it comes with risks.

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