Towards the end of 2018, the Trump administration’s reluctance to stay militarily entangled in Syria and Afghanistan became clearer. On the other hand, the concluding day of the last year witnessed the President Trump signing into Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) authorizing a spending of $1.5 billion toward developing “a long-term strategic vision and a comprehensive, multifaceted, and principled United States policy for the Indo-Pacific region, and for other purposes” indicating a shifting of US focus to the Indo-Pacific region. https://thediplomat.com/2019/01/trump-signs-asia-reassurance-initiative-act-into-law/
The act recognized the vitality of Indo-US strategic partnership in the overall US strategy. For instance, Section 204 of the act calls for strengthening and broadening of economic, and security ties between India and the US in order to promote peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region. https://m.dailyhunt.in/news/india/english/hwnews+in-epaperhwnws/donald+trump+signs+legislation+enhancing+us+leadership+in+indo+pacific+region+into+law-newsid-105240594
The law apart from focusing on US ties with other powers such as Japan, Australia and Southeast Asian countries, reinforces Indo-US strategic partnership by reaffirming and endorsing existing bilateral instruments, such as the “New Framework for the United States-India Defense Relationship” of 2005 to the designating of India as a Major Defense Partner by a 2017. https://www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/in-new-us-law-india-s-vital-role-in-indo-pacific-strategy-reaffirmed/story-a2wAoRpDCtJNBFBpBuhYqJ.html
Rising India and its relevance for American Outreach
India opened up its economy and showed quick signs of economic and military progress following a phase of economic crisis in the beginning of 1990s. US considered the growing India instrumental in maintaining balance in Asia and a possible counterweight to China’s rise. The national security adviser to President Bush, Condoleezza Rice suggested in an article in Foreign Affairs in the very beginning of the 21st century that the US should pay closer attention to India’s role in the regional balance. Around the same time, the then Indian Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee referred to India and the US as ‘natural allies’ and underlined the shared values of democracy between the largest and the oldest democracy in the world during his trip to the US. President Bush in an effort to apprise the Indian leader Vajpayee of the changing power dynamics in the Asian continent said: “A strong India can help provide the balance of power in the entire Asian region.” http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/balancing-act-china-india-us-triangle
The Bush administration, realizing the importance of India’s economic and military clout emphasized on the de-hyphenation of India and Pakistan policy after decades of Pakistan-centricity which implied that US would improve relations with Islamabad as well as New Delhi rather than treating them in zero-sum terms. In the wake of ‘War on Terror’ in 2001, New Delhi expecting an all-out war against terrorism declared its immediate support and within a short time offered all logistic help to Washington. The US lifted nuclear sanctions against India and eased export controls on so-called dual-technologies, which could serve both civilian and military purposes.
However, Pakistan remained the key to the American Afghan strategies. In 2004, President Bush realizing Islamabad’s vitality to prosecute the Afghan war designated Pakistan as major non-Nato ally of US making Pakistan eligible for a series of benefits in the areas of foreign aid and defence co-operation, including priority delivery of defence items. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/3814013.stm
On the other side, Indo-US strategic partnership was forged with the signing of the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Deal in 2005. The deal poised to provide India with all benefits that the signatories to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) receive although India had been refuting to sign the treaty even under the American pressure. The Obama administration, however, considered recalibrating the balancing strategy by adopting a policy of engaging China through Sino-American “G2” condominium and issuing a joint statement with the Chinese president Hu Jintao which persuaded China to lend its good offices to resolve conflicts in South Asia, at the November 2009 Beijing summit. However, perhaps realizing the futility of the policy of engagement, the administration harked back to the earlier US strategy of containing China and its announcement of “Asia Pivot” in late 2011 was geared toward this objective and India’s role was conceived vital in this US rebalancing strategy. https://nationalinterest.org/feature/sorry-obama-america-cant-contain-china-13097
India’s Afghan Concerns
Divergences in New Delhi’s concerns and strategic importance in the American perspective can be culled from the willingness expressed by the then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen who came alongside Richard Holbrooke Special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009–2010) to New Delhi in July 2010 who wanted India to focus on its military-to-military cooperation with America and, of course, to work hard with the US to counter China’s “assertive … territorial claims and aggressive approach to the near-sea area recently.”https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-politics-of-Taliban reconciliation/article16215673.ece
On the other side, Holbrooke advised India not to worry about the future of Afghanistan, where New Delhi would have a role to play.
Under President Bush as well as Obama, the US kept supplying a substantial amount of economic and military aid to Pakistan to prosecute the Afghan war. Obama administration’s plan to draw-down American troops in Afghanistan by fixing a timeline enhanced US dependence on Pakistani channels further in an effort to reconcile the ‘good Taliban’ and find a political solution to the Afghan conundrum. On the other hand, New Delhi maintained that there could not be good or bad terrorism.
Differences in the US and Indian position on terrorism became further apparent in their divergent perceptions while India considered ‘War on Terror’ as a comprehensive and all-out effort to eliminate terrorism, the US sought to address those threats that undermined American efforts in Afghanistan (Al Qaeda, hardliners within Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network) rather than mitigate the cross-border terrorism (perpetrated by groups such as Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Taiba) concerning India.
Over the years, Pakistan became a recipient of massive war aid from US to combat terrorism which it allegedly used for other purposes contributing to Indian concerns. For instance, Azeem Ibrahim, a former Research Fellow, International Security Program, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, pointed to the facts how Pakistan bought much conventional military equipment such as F-16s, aircraft-mounted armaments, anti-ship and anti-missile defence systems, and an air defence radar system costing $200 million, despite the fact that the terrorists in FATA had no air attack capability. https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/us-aid-pakistan-us-taxpayers-have-funded-pakistani-corruption
Continuing Strategic Partnership
India’s centrality to the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia strategy and later Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific policy clearly exemplified the American vision of binding India into a close strategic partnership. New Delhi and Washington issued the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean Region in January 2015. The US declared India as a Major Defence Partner in December, 2016. Both countries held new bilateral Maritime Security Dialogue in April 2016 and signed Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) – one of the foundational agreements for strategic defence partnership allowing access to designated military facilities on either side for the purpose of refuelling and replenishment. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/What-is-LEMOA/article15604647.ece
Defence trade between the two countries surged from $1 billion in 2008 to over $15 billion by the end of 2016. On September 6, 2018, both countries signed the second foundational agreement known as Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) during the 2+2 dialogue to facilitate Indian military platforms’ access to encrypted, cutting edge and high-end secured communication equipments from the US. Strengthening of Indo-US strategic ties on the Indo-Pacific front pointed to convergence of both powers’ interests in stemming Beijing’s overriding influence in the region.
Indo-US strategic partnership stands on Indian centrality to the American Indo-Pacific strategy and was never designed to allay New Delhi’s Afghan concerns. India has not only been over-dependent on America-led war efforts, it has also been excluded from the peace process in Afghanistan. For instance, it has been kept out of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group keeping Pakistani sensitivities to Indian role in mind.
As the recent developments point to, the Trump administration might be poised to end more than 17-year long Afghan entanglement as has been indicated by President Trump’s decision to halve the size of the American troops in Afghanistan. In the evolving circumstances, India may be forced to invigorate regional diplomacy to win Russian and Iranian support to defend its stakes in Afghanistan rather than be content with the strategic partnership with the US to safeguard its Indo-Pacific security stakes.