The Indian government has divulged very little information – hardly any – regarding the visit by the United States National Security Advisor Herbert Raymond McMaster to New Delhi an April 18. The reticence is extraordinary, since Indian elites are usually exuberant when American dignitaries arrive. And McMaster happens to be the first official from the Donald Trump administration to visit India.
McMaster is destined to play a decisive role in the re-orientation of US policies toward India and the region. In the unstable political environment in Washington, DC, where even the formidable Steve Bannon feels no longer secure and might have become a «dead strategist walking», as New York Times caustically put it, McMaster seems reasonably safe in his job.
McMaster’s reputation lies in authoring a book on the criticality of army generals telling politicians in power the unvarnished truth about wars. He made a case study of what went horribly wrong in the Vietnam War. McMaster was once assigned to Afghanistan while General David Petraeus was in charge of the famous «surge» ordered by President Barack Obama. His vision of the region must be imbued with his searing experience of the Afghan war.
In Delhi, McMaster met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and had a 2-hour conversation separately with the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. According to the Indian government’s crisply-worded press release pared to the bare bones, in the conversation with Modi, McMaster «shared his perspective» on regional security with reference to Afghanistan, Middle East and North Korea, and «exchanged views» on how India and the US can work together in the fight against terrorism and «advance regional peace on regional peace, security and stability».
The salience seems to lie in the phraseology on advancing «regional peace, security and stability». That was presumably the operative part of his talks in Delhi. The McMaster mission can be seen through the prism of Trump’s policy priorities with regard to the Afghan war. In immediate terms, Trump has to decide whether to beef up American troop strength in Afghanistan in the pursuit of a strategy to conclude the war from a position of advantage. Plainly put, this now becomes his war, no longer Obama’s.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, from Kabul McMaster headed for Islamabad. Pakistan’s cooperation is of pivotal importance to Trump’s policies in Afghanistan. There is often a tendency to keep measuring with coffee spoon the «pressure» US is willing to put on Pakistan to clamp down on the Taliban. But a close reading of McMaster’s talks in Pakistan – importantly, with Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa at the GHQ in Rawalpindi – presents a more complex picture. The Trump administration is taking a «holistic» view of the US’ relations with Pakistan. This could be largely because of Pakistan’s multiple options today in the global alignment.
At any rate, McMaster’s itinerary virtually hyphenated Pakistan and India. At its most obvious level, the leitmotif is terrorism. What US diplomacy grapples with in reality is a 3-way matrix involving Afghanistan, Pakistan and India which negatively impacts «regional peace, security and stability». The press release issued by the Pakistani military after McMaster’s call on General Bajwa in Rawalpindi says,
• COAS (General Bajwa) said that while Pakistan itself is victim of state sponsored terrorism it strongly rejects allegations of employing proxies from its soil. US NSA acknowledged Pakistan Army’s efforts in eliminating terrorists and their infrastructure, assuring US support to bring peace and stability in the region and globe».
Interestingly, even as McMaster was holding talks in Delhi, Pakistani military made a stunning announcement that Ehsanullah Ehsan, former spokesperson of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and a senior leader of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, had turned himself in to Pakistan's security agencies. There is reason to believe that Ehsan had been in the custody of the Pakistani military for a few weeks already and the curtain was deliberately raised on Monday.
McMaster was likely told about Ehsan. Without doubt, Ehsan is a prize catch for the Pakistani military, since he would have had more than a window seat to observe the planning, coordination and execution of covert operations by the (Pakistani) Taliban groups, undertaken from sanctuaries in Afghanistan, to destabilize Pakistan.
But here the plot thickens, because Pakistani press has since begun reporting that it is «very likely that a confessional video of Ehsan might emerge in coming days with explosive revelations about possible links» with Kulbhushan Jadhav, an ex-Indian Navy officer who was recently court martialed by Pakistani military and given death sentence for allegedly working under cover and indulging in subversive activities.
Faced with such delicate moments, Americans tend to seek «grand bargains». But what kind of a grand bargain is possible? Quintessentially, it means responsible behaviour by India and Pakistan as nuclear powers under American mentorship. The bottom line is a moratorium by both countries on violent methods to settle differences and instead stick to diplomacy to resolve disputes.
However, this may seem too close a call on Kashmir settlement for Delhi’s comfort. Earlier this month, Trump’s loud-mouthed envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley did some kite-flying in New York disclosing that India-Pakistan tensions have figured in the National Security Council meetings in the White House and Washington is inclined to mediate before tensions reached a flashpoint. She hinted that Trump feels that way, too.
India has a famous record of hunkering down if its core interests come under challenge. It has consistently stonewalled efforts at third-party mediation on Kashmir. To compound matters, the state of Jammu & Kashmir is in ferment and an Intifada is struggling to be born in the Valley. Besides, the Modi government’s core constituency of militant Hindu nationalists oppose any compromise with Pakistan.
Interestingly, contrary to earlier Indian reports that McMaster might hand over to Modi a formal invitation from Trump to visit the US, nothing of the sort happened on Monday at the meeting in Delhi. Curiously, McMaster also was to have met the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, but somehow the meeting didn’t materialise. So, he ended up having a business meeting with Doval that was topped up with a courtesy call on Modi – rather meagre schedule for Trump’s NSC on his maiden visit to a country with which the US claims a «defining partnership».
Something has to give way. Trump prides himself on the «art of the deal», as he once put it. Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping, Benjamin Netanyahu, Abdel Al-Fatah Sisi, Mohammed bin Salman, King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein – Trump sought to cut some deal or the other with all of these statesmen from outside the western world whom he hosted. Of course, a deal on Kashmir would be the «mother of all deals».
The Indian ingenuity lies in scheduling an early meeting for Modi with Trump sans a deal. But then, Pakistan’s cooperation with the US in Afghanistan is predicated on a deal that Trump mediates on Kashmir. The brainy generals surrounding Trump must know that the Indian rope trick is often described as the world’s greatest illusion.