US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to India has confirmed a slight realignment in the region’s geopolitical dynamics. But before dwelling any deeper on what this realignment entails, it is imperative to establish some context. After his meeting with External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj on Tuesday, Kerry announced that the United States wants to see credible action from Pakistan on both the 26/11 Mumbai attack and the siege on the Pathankot airbase, reiterating New Delhi’s concerns for an end to a distinction between “good terrorism” and “bad terrorism”.
While the Pakistani civilian government has proclaimed that it will not differentiate between the “good” and “bad” terrorists in light of horrific attacks on domestic soil, the military and intelligence establishment seem rather unperturbed. Despite targeting terror groups in the northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas, both the civilian and military establishment in Pakistan continue to support and finance terror groups in India, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh to fulfil their strategic objectives.
"There was a meeting of minds on the issue of terrorism," said Sushma Swaraj, after the second India-US Strategic and Commercial Dialogue. Although Kerry was careful not to explicitly name Pakistan, it was clear that his message was aimed at India’s volatile neighbour. “Let me be clear, United States continues to support all efforts to bring the perpetrators of Mumbai and the Pathankot attacks to justice and we cannot and will not make a distinction between good and bad terrorism,” he said. Pakistan has been long known to harbour the likes of Lashkar-e-Toiba (responsible for the 26/11 attack) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (responsible for the attack on Pathankot airbase). Legal proceedings against JeM Chief Masood Azhar and top LeT commander Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi for the Pathankot siege and the 26/11 attack respectively have moved at a glacial pace.
However, the most significant announcement of the day was that the US will hold trilateral talks with Afghanistan and India during next month’s United Nations session to further calibrate counter-terror measures. In the past decade, American officials have sought to pressure Pakistan into denying safe havens for insurgent groups involved in destabilising Afghanistan, especially the Taliban and its brutal offshoot, the Haqqani network. But that has not created the requisite incentive for Pakistan to give up its terror apparatus. The script has gone terribly wrong, even though Kerry acknowledged that Pakistan had “acted against” the Haqqani network.
In a recent column, noted Indian journalist and strategic expert Praveen Swami wrote: “Instead of compelling the Taliban leadership to talk, it’s (Pakistan) allowed their largest offensive in years to surge forward. In effect, it’s stringing Afghanistan along, until the Taliban bring the government to its knees. Islamabad’s compulsions are simple. Pakistan can’t risk the Afghan Taliban joining hands with the Pakistani Taliban networks and the Islamic State led by Khan Saeed, who want to overthrow the government. That could end in a war larger than the Pakistan army is prepared to fight. It is simply in no position, therefore, to restrain the Taliban.” In past few years, this realisation has dawned on the Americans. The first and second trilateral dialogues including India, the US, and Afghanistan were held in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Kerry’s announcement on Tuesday for the third round of trilateral talks is yet another indicator of a steady departure from the American policy of facilitating the peace process in Afghanistan through Islamabad. New Delhi, meanwhile, has reaffirmed its support for the US-backed government in Kabul.
The US government also implicitly backed India’s efforts to have JeM chief Masood Azhar listed as a terrorist by the UN Security Council’s 1267 committee. “We will also intensify intelligence sharing and continue to work closely to get terrorist entities listed by the UN system, by coordinating our approach to the UN 1267 Committee,” Swaraj said on Tuesday. This is where the slight realignment in the region’s geopolitical dynamics seems to have come into play. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China exercised its veto powers to obstruct India’s efforts against Azhar.
Washington’s decision to back India in its bid to impose UN sanctions on Azhar and the JeM comes in the face of China’s recent economic and military concessions to Pakistan. China has worked overtime to undermine India’s security interests across international forums, while implicitly protecting Pakistan from further embarrassment. Washington’s decision to support India’s bid for NSG membership and Beijing’s decision to block it are also emblematic of the same dynamic. China has decided to use Pakistan as a buffer against potential security threats in light of a growing tide of fighters from the troubled Xinjiang province to jihadist groups. On the economic front, it is heavily invested in the $46 billion dollar-China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which stretches between Chinese province of Xinjiang and the Pakistani port city of Gwadar.
To the uninitiated, Gwadar is a port city on the southwestern coast of Balochistan, Pakistan. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent references to the turmoil in Balochistan and Pakistan’s role in fomenting trouble in Kashmir Valley have naturally raised alarm among certain sections of the Chinese establishment. It is a well-established fact that US President Barack Obama wants India to become a major player in Washington’s “Pivot to Asia” doctrine, which essentially seeks to contain China's growing presence in Central Asia and the maritime theatres of the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean. Its decision to bat for India on various security-related concerns may stem from this desire.