On 19 January, General (retired) Lloyd Austin, president-elect Joe Biden’s pick to become the United States (US) Secretary of Defence, spoke at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing and emphasised that he will put pressure on Pakistan to prevent it from allowing its territory to be used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organisations.
On a separate note, however, the defence secretary nominee has shown a keen desire to enhance the US-India strategic partnership and bolster the overall arrangement of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). These statements illustrate how a Biden administration may recalibrate the US’ South Asia policy and preserve India’s role as a status quo regional leader.
The Pakistan Dilemma
Throughout history, Pakistan has been an important element in the US foreign policy in Afghanistan particularly in relation to the peace process. However, time and time again, Pakistan has demonstrated its lack of effectiveness in brokering the peace in the country. Instead, Pakistan’s ISI continues to wreak havoc and deteriorate the situation by targeting innocent people to significantly fracture the rule of law. This is its way of showcasing to the government of Afghanistan that groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani Network (which it controls parts of) will eventually dominate. The relatively ‘unruled areas‘ along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, have allowed Pakistan to set-up terror training camps and bases, with the active support and cooperation from the Taliban and Haqqani Network. Moreover, Pakistan-based terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are also involved in the fighting and instability of Afghanistan. As a result, Pakistan’s malign intentions and involvement in the affairs of Afghanistan have ironically caused more harm than good. Despite this, the US has continued to accommodate Pakistan role in the region.
However, in 2018, a significant policy shift occurred when the Trump Administration cancelled USD 300 million worth of aid to Pakistan due to the latter’s inability to improve its terror record. Moreover, in 2020, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) retained Pakistan in the grey list for its insufficient progress in addressing terror financing. Recently, the defence secretary nominee highlighted Pakistan’s inadequacy in alleviating issues of terror in the South Asian region. He added that, “Many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack.”
The statements made by Austin show that the US will be taking a tougher position on Pakistan and will not allow it to free ride on Washington’s history of accommodation. This will also put pressure on China towards its “all weather” support for Pakistan in international fora. However, in order to effectively address Pakistan’s terror activities, the US must remain committed towards Afghanistan’s stability and look for alternative like-minded partners to secure the order of not only the country but the region as well.
Among the like-minded partners of the US, India holds an incredibly special place. India-US relations continue to hold bipartisan support. During the hearing, Austin also said that if he is confirmed for the position, he will maximise all efforts to continue elevating the defence partnership with India and endeavour to “further operationalise India’s ‘Major Defense Partner’ status”. This continuity in the US’ India Policy paints a positive picture for the rising Asian power. Moreover, by leveraging its relations with the US, India will be in a better position to maintain stability in South Asia at a time when the Pakistan-China nexus continues to deepen. In line with this, a Biden administration has also been seen to have the potential of pursuing a more robust position against an “assertive and aggressive” China.
If materialised, this orientation will be in India’s favour especially in securing its position as a regional leader in South Asia. It would be expected, however, that India will have to play a bigger role in stabilising the situation Afghanistan. This involves not only securing its assets in the country, but also maintaining the rule of law which Pakistan aims to provoke. This will not be an easy task considering India has shown reluctance in involving itself in the affairs of Afghanistan in the past; however, if it seeks to play a bigger role in maintaining the status-quo order in South Asia, India will have to make decisions that do not necessarily reflect its previous orientations.