A critical moment for US policy in South Asia


Michael Kugelman January 25, 2020

U.S. President Donald Trump participates in the Howdy Modi event with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Houston, Texas. (Reuters)

These are momentous times for South Asia and the next few weeks could be highly consequential for US policy there. In recent days, Ambassador Alice Wells, the top South Asia official at the US State Department, has held a series of meetings in India and Pakistan. Meanwhile, US-Taliban talks — back on track after Trump pulled the plug in September — are moving closer to producing a deal. And preparations are underway for a visit by President Donald Trump to India. The exact dates will depend on his impeachment trial in the Senate, but some point within the next month is likely.

In unpacking this series of diplomatic developments, it is important to keep in mind the Trump administration’s two core objectives in South Asia: One is working out a way to withdraw troops from Afghanistan; the other is strengthening a relationship with India that has continued to grow over the last few years but has also experienced ample turbulence.

On Afghanistan, US and Taliban representatives are close to a troop withdrawal deal that would also produce commitments from the Taliban on a 10-day cease-fire, a reduction in violence, and talks with the Afghan government. The first commitment is admittedly short, the second admittedly vague, and the third admittedly risky — given that the Taliban has long vowed to overthrow the Afghan government and the political system that it oversees.

However, given Trump’s haste to get a deal that would provide him with critical political cover for a withdrawal as the US presidential election draws closer, these Taliban commitments are likely to be enough for Washington. Kabul has already, understandably, expressed its concern about these less-than-robust offers from the Taliban. But since the Afghan government has been locked out of a strictly bilateral US-Taliban negotiation, its inputs are unlikely to carry much weight.

Consequently, US diplomacy in South Asia in the coming days is likely to prepare the ground for a deal with the Taliban that would presumably create a path for a formal Afghan peace and reconciliation process. In Pakistan, where relations with America have enjoyed a renaissance over the last year because of Islamabad’s facilitation of talks between Washington and the Taliban, discussions will revolve — in part — around what to expect next in Afghanistan. If a deal is finalized within the next few weeks, one can’t rule out the possibility of Trump making a quick stop in Islamabad, after New Delhi, to express appreciation for Pakistan’s help.

Additionally, Islamabad, which wants to capitalize on the surge in US-Pakistan goodwill emerging from their cooperation in Afghanistan, will push for expanding the relationship with more trade and investment cooperation. Washington, however, will first want to talk about the status of Pakistan’s efforts to take irreversible steps against terrorist infrastructure, including financing networks, on Pakistani soil. This has long been a Trump administration demand — and the reason why it suspended security assistance to Pakistan two years ago.

With India, the dynamics are decidedly different. New Delhi is not involved in the US-Taliban negotiations, and only recently has it extended its support to a negotiation process that was facilitated by its bitter Pakistani enemy and excluded Kabul — a key Indian partner. Accordingly, US diplomacy in India will in part involve keeping New Delhi informed about recent happenings and next steps in Afghanistan.

However, the main objective of US diplomacy in India in the coming days — and especially Trump’s upcoming visit — is to re-energize a partnership that has enjoyed ample movement on the defense side, but that has lagged in other respects. In the Trump era, US trade relations have lapsed with key partners, and India is no exception. Efforts to cobble together a new trade deal have struggled, though one is finally emerging. It won’t be as major as the new one between Washington and Beijing, but it is still significant given how commercial relations have long been the Achilles’ heel of US-India relations. When Trump is in India, he may be able to sign the deal.

The symbolic power of a presidential visit to India couldn’t come at a better time for US-India relations.

Michael Kugelman

Still, the main objective of Trump’s India visit will be to underscore Washington’s continued commitment to growing out its partnership with New Delhi, warts and all. Indeed, the symbolic power of a presidential visit to India couldn’t come at a better time for US-India relations. Trade tensions, Washington’s warming relations with Islamabad, and controversial Indian domestic policies — which have prompted criticism from many quarters in Washington, especially Capitol Hill — have all deleteriously impacted what both sides have long described as a “natural” partnership.

In effect, the coming weeks could produce two major wins for US policy in South Asia: A Taliban deal in Afghanistan and a dramatic boost for US-India relations. 

  • Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point-of-view

The article appeared in the Arab News on 25 January 2020