The stability and peace in the Central Eurasian region particularly Afghanistan has been significant for India’s Eurasian approach. India along with the United States has long been involved in this region to maintain stability and peace. However, the recent decision by the US President Trump to retrench American forces in the Greater Middles East (Syria and Afghanistan) has marked the end of protracted phase of the US-led military assault on toppling the Taliban regime. It could prompt Taliban and other unknown possibilities to regain ground in Afghanistan (Asian Roundabout). Additionally, the resignation of India’s staunch supporter, the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis is one more dent on New Delhi’s strong advocate in the Eurasian region vis-à-vis China.
The argument is that Trump Administration’s unintelligible mixture of America First approach and external trajectories in international politics has made India’s Eurasia connect approach an unpredictable factor. In the background of such developments, the question is that how India would redefine its strategy for Eurasian connectivity with having no option but to factor these into its strategic designs?
Afghanistan Factor: Indo-US Embrace to Stretch out to Eurasia
The Idea of rewiring Eurasia geo-economically, geopolitically and strategically with India’s regional interests has gained importance after the US had intervened in the region. This military intervention was the outcome of terrorist attacks on World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001, the day which is usually called as “the day the world changed” in 21st century. Since 2001, the region particularly Afghanistan has remained a battleground for America and NATO forces. It has increased the importance of Afghanistan in India’s connectivity and security strategies towards the Eurasian region.
Also, the US presence altered India’s diplomatic perceptions about China [Pakistan] and Russia as exclusive state actors having separate ideological orientations in the region. However, the US wanted India to help counter terrorism activities given its strategic proximity with the latter which, in turn, heightened India’s prospects for energy transit and trade connectivity via Afghanistan. Thus, it has provided base to interest convergences between India and the US over regional as well as global issues.
Former Indian PM Manmaohan Singh (2004-14) and President Obama (2009-17) shared good terms of relations. Meanwhile, the United States supported India’s connectivity programmes like Chabahar Port, International North-South Corridor (INSTC), Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline and trade-transit infrastructure in Afghanistan. The INSTC also includes the violence-prone country Syria. India helped the US-led peace mission by contributing providing $70 million and technical assistance to revamp Tajikistan’s Ayni airbase for anti-Taliban fighters during 2003-2010.
Given India’s constructive presence and increased risks in Pakistan, the US introduced the idea of establishing Northern Distribution Network (NDN) in 2009 in Afghanistan and beyond. It had drastically changed geostrategic settings in the Eurasian region. Although Pakistan’s role as a frontline state had plummeted India’s geopolitical stakes for brief period, India found room by offering itself as security stabilizer and peace provider in the region. It signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement (2011) with Afghanistan given the expected withdrawal of American forces. Thus, both India and the US recognized the Afghanistan as a transit hub to meet energy and strategic needs without any “Great Game.”
The incumbent Indian PM Modi (2014-present) has also continued this momentum with more candour. The series of Indo-US Strategic Dialogue mechanisms used to give strong foundation to their strategic matters over security and stability. The third (2012) and fifth (2014) rounds of strategic dialogues have been particularly focused on global and regional hotspots such as the Greater Middle East including Afghanistan.
As per Ministry of External Affairs’ press release (June 2014), both India and the US have shown commitment to amplify their counter-terror cooperation on stability and peace in a war-prone country. These engagements show that how Afghanistan has become a determining factor for Indo-US proximity in the Eurasian region. Geopolitically, geo-strategically and economically, they have been converging over various points of debates/discussions both at the regional and global levels. But a recent array of changes and re-re-definition of American interests under Trump’s administration has left India in limbo about its position over unpredictable geopolitical turbulence in the region.
Trump’s Geopolitical Paradoxes
Under Trump administration, the US foreign policy particularly South Asia policy has been undergoing profound and complex changes, creating metamorphic challenges. The strategies and decisions like America First policy, withdrew from Climate Change Agreement, JCPOA, CAATSA, protectionism, troop retrenchment have put several America’s allies and enemies on the tightrope walk about the future fault lines in the US foreign policy towards them.
A Brookings Institute strategic expert Hanlon (2016) argued that Barack Obama was the only American President whose policies remained centered on the single war in South Asia (Afghanistan) for the entirety of his regime. In contrast, his successor, President Donald Trump adhered to a different worldview by sticking its policies to protectionism and nationalism with the start of his presidency. To date, his stand on South Asia policy remained uncertain and ambiguous which has created internal geopolitical paradoxes over its foreign policy trajectories. This approach has not only changed the behaviour of its allies including India but also worried them about the future course of his strategy.
During and after his presidential election campaign, his motto of America First Policy remained focused on complete end of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. He tweeted that, “why are we continuing to train these Afghanis who then shoot our soldiers in the back? Afghanistan is a complete waste. Time to come home!” Under the motto of America First, he adopted the protectionist policies against many counties like China, Russia and Canada including India. He resolved to put unnecessary ban over Muslim counties in the Greater Middle East to do business in America.
Mohan (2018) argued that it was a surprising departure from traditional American foreign policy. It provoked widespread unease among Asian spectators particularly India, as a paradigmatic shift in the US South Asia policy could undermine New Delhi’s current geopolitical stake for Eurasian connectivity. However, soon after one and a half year, he turned down his decision in geopolitical terms only and continued his aggressive approach towards the world trading system. The redefinition his South Asia policy brought Afghanistan again to the forefront in the international politics.
The reorientation of Trump Administration’s “Afghan Policy” revalidated India’s role in the South Asian region. It led India to call upon the international community to fight against terrorist activities emanating from the Af-Pak region. Since, the 2014-withdrawal led to the resurgence of Taliban which meanwhile took control over 63 per cent contested and uncontested territory of Afghanistan, India strongly supported the US-led NATO mission for stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Although, the US has given driver seat to India in its strategic mission, recent Trump’s announcement to retrench American troops from the Greater Middle East pushed Delhi back to the front. Kabalan (2018) said to Aljazeera that the US withdrawal would trigger another round of conflict in the Greater Middle East which would result into the start of new “all against all war” in the region. These “all” include the regional powers like Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Islamic State (ISIL), and India may be the last in the list to procure its connectivity projects in the region.
It is seen that the announcement was revealed in the background of Trump Administration’s direct talk with Taliban at Abu Dhabi brokered by Pakistan which arguably conveyed concerns for India. Trump replaced his “absolute win over terrorism” rhetoric with “reconciliation and rebuilding America” one. Thus, Trump’s policies have been undergoing geopolitical paradoxes and dualism towards the South Asia region. From America’s First policy rhetoric to reintroduction of Afghan Policy and again redefinition of America’s military strategy in region has made Washington policy an unpredictable factor for its allies including India.
Another geopolitical paradox is the implementation and withdrawal of Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although it was signed in 2015 during the Obama regime, critics perceive that Trump had withdrawn from JCPOA without any strategic reason to fulfill his pledge taken during the presidential election campaign. Beauchamp (May 2018) on Vox Media argued that it was against the will of five other signatories—Britain, France, Russia, China and Germany, who expressed their concern. Trump has done so without presenting any evidence against Iran that the latter is not complying with the deal. It is important to mention that Iran along with Afghanistan have been significant to India’s Connect Central Asia Policy and other connectivity projects like INSTC, Chabahar Port etc.
The passage of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) in the US Congress in August 2017 has given strategic substance to JCPOA withdrawal. It came into effect on January 2018 to put sanctions against Iran including Russia and Korea. Putting sanctions against Iran and Russia did not go in the favour of Washington’s so-called “Global Strategic Partner” India.
There is another factor that despite being critic of China-led Belt Road Initiatives, the US sent delegation to China’s Belt and Road Forum in 2017. It had not only shocked its Western allies but India also. As Washington has been familiar with India’s sovereign issue with China over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Trump’s immediate u-turn stunned Indian policy observers.
Last but not least, the internal tussle on Trump’s foreign policy paradoxes has resulted in the departure of some prominent administrators. The US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was one of them who always advocated for Indo-US strong relations in South Asia. Undoubtedly, sudden changes in the US administration would mean that it will give Trump free hand in determining new policy directions based on his dispositions.
India’s Unpredictable Concerns Factoring the United States
From the above analysis, it can be said that the US South Asian policy has been upholding and retaining its significant place among the regional powers which are striving for rewiring/reconnecting the Eurasian region. Insofar as India is concerned, the redefinition of America’s interests by Trump has made New Delhi’s Eurasia strategy more unpredictable than ever before. For Eurasian connectivity, Russia, Iran, Syria and Afghanistan have been significant strategic actors in India’s energy trade and connectivity programmes.
The isolating policies of the US would expose the region towards potential geopolitical conflicts. Given the fear of Washington’s absence, Russia and Iran’s Taliban outreach, Sino-Pak axis, Turkey dilemma, resurgence of ISIL in Syria and Iraq are potential trajectories making Indian governments worried about its geopolitical profile in the region.
India has been working on many infrastructural and connectivity projects like TAPI, INSTC and Chabahar Port. The growing leverage of transit countries due to changing sphere of influence would create possibilities of cancellation and renegotiation of these projects. It could hamper India’s economic investment and geopolitical synergy. Thus, the real challenge for India would be to fill the gap by offering itself as a security and peace provider.
Although, many ideal critics envisions that the US withdrawal from the Greater Middle East will bring stability and peace in the region, that every country wants to run their governments without external intervention. But, realistically, it is the not accurate time to leave volatile regions on their own destinies. The violence-prone countries like Syria and Afghanistan are still lacking the strategic vision to deal with internal and external issues.
Moreover, declining power the US would cut down its hegemonic sway in the region which would allow Russia to take position. Already these dynamics have increased geo-strategic competitions between India and China. This strategically competing environment has created a room for middle powers like Pakistan and Iran to capitalize realignments against each other. India’s strategic rivals Pakistan’s growing affinity China and Russia would be crosshairs for it. India’s relations with the US would be a challenge to balance these embryonic power equations.
Lastly, Trump’s stratagem has been indeed a metaphoric and temeritous than that of previous administrations. The more interesting facts show that how consequential dynamics in the Eurasian region will affect India’s position in Afghanistan and the region, given the unpredictable gestures of Trump’s South Asian Policy. These dynamics would possibly be paradoxical in geopolitical terms which would happen either in Washington’s policy directions or in independent manner. India should take these dynamics and unavoidable geopolitical turbulences into account while defining its alignments and interests within the Eurasian region. For it, India needs a pro-active strategy with both strategic and economic sways. It would be in India’s interest to identify geopolitical synergies and geo-economic convergences among stakeholders in the Eurasian region.
*About the authors: Sandeep Singh, Ph.D. (Ph.D Research Scholar), Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relation, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India; Dr. Bawa Singh is teaching at the Department of South and Central Asian Studies, School of Global Relations, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India.