Forging Indo-US strategic relations ahead, the American leadership has granted India ‘Strategic Trade Authorization-1’ (STA-1) status with an objective to ease export controls over high technology product sales which has so far been applicable only to its NATO allies.
In the 2+2 dialogue, both countries are likely to discuss the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) which would enable India to buy high-end secured communication equipment to be installed on military platforms from the US instead of current reliance on less secured commercially available communication systems on high-end American platforms.
Notwithstanding these developments in bilateral relations between India and the US what would determine the depth of relations would be American concessions on India’s S-400 missile deal with Russia and oil imports from Iran. It is also pertinent to India’s strategic interests that it takes forward its partnership with Iran and develops Chabahar port by getting concessions from the Trump Administration which has rolled back the nuclear deal with Tehran and put up new sanctions.
It seems unlikely that the Trump Administration which is poised and committed to tightening the sanction-regime against these countries would grant selective concessions to India.
On the other hand, India-China relations seem to be moving in a positive direction post-Doklam standoff. An informal meeting between the Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Modi in the Chinese city of Wuhan in April 2018 followed by a meeting on the sidelines of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit Qingdao in June 2018 and BRICS summit meeting in July 2018 seemingly set the tone of enhanced partnership between the two countries.
India’s Prime Minister Modi has also extended his cooperative gestures by attempting to remove Chinese suspicions over Indian intentions in the Indian Ocean at the Shangri-La Dialogue forum in Singapore on June 1, 2018. His statements distanced New Delhi from any group or policy that aimed at containing China – which is one of the objectives behind the formation of the Quad including the US, Australia and Japan as other members apart from other objectives as rules-based international order and freedom of navigation. Unexpected and sudden spike in India and China relations can be attributed to plummeting of US-China relations.
While the Trump Administration is tightening its screws on China in its attempt to set right the trade imbalance and address the surplus in favor of China which is perceived more as a trade war in Beijing because of exchange of high-sounding rhetoric and unpredictable measures, India’s palpable distance from the Quad’s primary objective has made the relations between these major powers more complex and volatile.
On the other side, the Trump Administration has extended its suspension of security assistance to Pakistan as Islamabad has so far failed to act against terrorism as per the American convictions. While the Imran Khan leadership in Pakistan is reeling under economic crisis and poised to seek loans from IMF, the American Administration has already expressed its unwillingness to assist Islamabad in securing any loans from the international financial institution where the US enjoys predominance to repay the Chinese loans.
The Trump Administration is cautious of Beijing’s rising geopolitical influence under its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ which would rise to global prominence if unchecked. It is noteworthy that China is heavily invested in Pakistan to actualize the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project and engaged in constructing roads, ports and building other connectivity infrastructure.
It is further reported that Beijing is engaged in building a small city for half a million Chinese nationals in the port town of Gwadar. However, in order to run the Chinese projects and buy construction materials, Pakistan is allegedly overburdened with Chinese debts. To aggravate the economic impediments further Pakistan has been included in the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) ‘grey list’ on the ground of its failure to freeze assets of terror outfits such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad which would subject its financial transactions to global surveillance and Islamabad from raising money from any illegitimate sources.
Chinese relations with Pakistan and Pakistan’s defiance of the US strictures would depend largely on how Beijing manages Islamabad’s economic predicaments or else US and Pakistan might rethink and recast their relations in promoting the Taliban as a legitimate stakeholder with Islamabad assuring Washington of its presence in Afghanistan without any vital threats to its interests from the Taliban. It is unlikely that Beijing which is already heavily invested in Pakistan and also averse to long-term American presence in its neighborhood apart from the current plunge in bilateral relations would allow its relations with Pakistan be replaced by US-Pak strategic relations.
Against the backdrop of uncertain dynamics of relations between these major powers, Afghanistan has been witnessing neither coherent foreign policy measures from nor cooperation among the powers with stakes in political developments in Kabul. Rising violence in Afghanistan from the Taliban and ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan known as ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province) has been primarily a result of divergent geopolitical interests that each country pursued driven by mutual distrust and antipathy.
A UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) report released on July 15, 2018, attributed forty two percent of civilian casualties to the Afghan Taliban and eighteen percent to ISIS in the first half of 2018. It is understandable that as the Taliban stake its claim to be legal and political actor in Afghanistan and they might not claim responsibility for all the attacks which result in large-scale killings of Afghan civilians, however, many civilians have been killed as collateral damage caused by the armed clashes between the Afghan government and the Taliban, between the Taliban and the NATO and American forces and the Taliban attacks on government institutions and diplomatic presence of foreign countries. The Taliban’s commitment to peace has never been an irreversible process as has been witnessed in the Taliban’s offensives in the provincial capital of Ghajni while the peace process was gathering momentum.
ISIS has launched many deadly attacks which were primarily targeted at the religious minorities irrespective of their age-group. For instance, there were successive terror attacks in Kabul on April 30, 2018 which reportedly took lives of more than forty civilians including children. These strikes followed closely on the heels of a spate of serious attacks a week before in which more than sixty civilians were killed while they lined up to register to vote for the upcoming elections.
Terrorist offensives by the group in the Afghan city of Jalalabad killed 19 people including 17 persons from Sikh and Hindu communities on July 1, 2018. Intolerance of ISIS towards religious minorities including children reached a disgraceful low on August 15, 2018 when more than forty eight young people among which 34 were students belonging to the Shiite minority sect preparing for university entrance exams were massacred with around 60 civilians left wounded many of whom might have lost their lives later.
While carnages perpetrated by these radical groups is becoming part of everyday life of Afghans, the major powers with stakes in Afghanistan are witnessed differing on their perceptions on the strength, objectives, character and alleged linkages of the groups with other powers. Russia, China, Pakistan and Iran not only perceived more serious threats from the transnational character and objectives of ISIS, they continue to allege that the US pursued shared interests with the radical group in destabilizing Afghanistan in order to secure a permanent military presence in the region.
The US, on the other hand, has been alleging that these countries are pursuing their own interests in Kabul by raising an ISIS specter (whose presence is limited as per the American statistics) while they provided the Taliban with arms and aid to sabotage peace process in Afghanistan.
Of late, Lt. Col. Martin O’Donnell, a spokesperson of US forces in Afghanistan has not only confirmed that the head of the ISKP, Abu Sayeed Orakzai has been killed in US counter-terrorism offensive, the US Administration believes that the limited strength of the group has further weakened contrary to the contentions of Russia and other countries sharing common concerns.
Continuously changing dynamics of relations among these powers may redefine their relations in Afghanistan but as long as they fail to agree that the horrendous terror acts indiscriminately targeting civilians including children perpetrated by these radical groups must be contained and fought together irrespective of the short-term geopolitical interests of the engaged powers, there could never be peace in Afghanistan which would impinge on regional and global peace as well.