In an era of changing alignments
1 June is important because the India-Russia Annual Summit is to be held in St Petersburg on that day. The next day Modi will be taken to witness a show of Russia’s soft power. The St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) will be attended by some 39 ministers from 26 countries
When is Trump going to announce his Afghanistan policy? What is the future of the Islamic Military Alliance? Is there a possibility of Pak-India talks taking place in the near future? Is there going to be any improvement in India-China relations after the Road and Belt Forum?
The answers or near answers to all these questions are tied to certain dates on account of ongoing realignments in international relations.
Let us take the issue of Trump’s Afghan policy first.
A number of important Trump administration figures visited Kabul last month. The new Afghan policy is however yet to be formulated. Not only Afghanistan but also Pakistan, India, China and Russia are keenly waiting for the announcement.
The Afghan Taliban continued the offensive even during the winter season when passes become snowbound and the Taliban are supposed to go into hibernation. In March and April they launched major attacks. Last month the Taliban announced the spring offensive with details of the havoc they intend to wreak in the country. There is however still no word about how the Trump administration is going to help Kabul.
There are serious warnings about the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating further. While testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee early this month Pentagon intelligence chief Lt Gen Vincent Stewart called for doing ” something very different” in Afghanistan, “or risk squandering all that has been invested there in recent years”.
Testifying before the same committee the top US intelligence official Dan Coats said the Taliban is likely to continue making battlefield gains. “Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018 even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners.” He further added, “Afghan security forces’ performance will probably worsen due to a combination of Taliban operations, combat casualties, desertion, poor logistics support and weak leadership.”
Not that Trump is unaware of the gravity of the situation. The problem however is that while he is taking away critical funding which the New York Police department needs to fight terrorism in the city, he cannot spend huge amounts for peace keeping abroad. Trump is therefore eying the oil rich Gulf states to contribute to the war chest. His argument: Why should America finance the Gulf countries’ defense by fighting ISIS and other terror groups when the Saudi King and the Gulf Sheikhs have enough funds at their disposal?
Trumps’ Afghan policy will get final touches only after he has got assurances of financial support from the Saudi royalty and the Gulf Sheikhs when he meets them today.
Saudi Arabia, which is hosting the Arab-Islamic-American Summit, has already made preparations. The representatives of Gulf states met in Riyadh early this week. On Thursday Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir told media about the aims of the summit which will be attended by 37 leaders from the Muslim world. It will, according to Jubeir, focus on combating terrorism and on trade, investment, youth and technology. Jubeir also talked about the formation of a regional security organisation. At end of the summit, leaders are going to launch a global counter-extremism center in Riyadh, which will fight an “ideological battle”. Iran too was high on the agenda. “We will work with our allies, particularly US, to see that Iran is made to act like a normal country,” Jubeir said. “As long as Iran threatens with terrorism, it is impossible to have normal relations with them.”
Will the Islamic military alliance boil down to a “global counter-terrorism center” involved in research and policy planning against terrorism? Or will it be a military alliance that will fight in other countries? This will become clear during the Riyadh summit. While fewer people will object to Pakistan becoming a part of the former, there will be a big opposition to its involvement in Saudi military adventures.
Trump wants the Europeans also to cough out money to contribute to the world-wide fight against terrorism, which also targets them.
Trump will broach the subject at the forthcoming G-7 summit on May 26-27 at Taormina, Italy. He will seek military and financial support for Afghanistan in particular. Many Germans being wary of military deployments, Chancellor Merkel is unwilling to go beyond NATO’s limited military training mission Germany is heading in northern Afghanistan. A number of G7 leaders have been recently elected like French President Emmauel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, and British Prime Minister Theresa May. It is not clear how much support Trump is going to get from G-7 countries with the exception of Japan, which is expected to contribute funds liberally.
India feels isolated after its absence from the Belt and Road Forum. The entire South Asia has signed projects with China despite India’s reservations leaving New Delhi high and dry. Putin was present at the Forum along with 28 other state and government leaders. Modi has so far taken a tough stand on Pakistan, refusing to hold talks with the neighbouring country. It remains to be seen if it will change the stance after the SCO summit on June 8-9 at Astana, Kazakhstan. India has been keen for full membership on account of the access the SCO can provide it in Central Asia.
Both China and Russia are keen to persuade India to come to terms with Pakistan through bilateral talks. They also would like to weaken the Indian opposition to an understanding between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
Modi has been playing the US against Russia ever since coming to power. He has been itching to have a meeting with Trump before holding talks with Putin and the SCO summit. He has desperately tried to get it scheduled in May. This failed to happen because of Trump’s engagements at home and abroad. Among other things Modi wanted assurances from Trump on Pakistan, Afghanistan and China .The Trump-Modi meeting is supposed to take place towards the end of June.
1 June is important because the India-Russia Annual Summit is to be held in St Petersburg on that day. The next day Modi will be taken to witness a show of Russia’s soft power. The St Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) will be attended by some 39 ministers from 26 countries with a total estimated number of participants including businessmen and representatives of various international organisations exceeding 5,000. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Yukiya Amano, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Fatih, and the heads of 250 foreign companies, including BP, Total and Boeing, are among those expected to arrive in St Petersburg.
A week later, on 8-9 June, the SCO Summit will take place in Astana, Kazakhstan. Attempts would be afoot by China and Russia for a breakthrough in Pakistan-India relations.
While the US Afghan policy is likely to be announced in May, the outcome of US-Saudi understanding would be in the media next week. Will India bid goodbye to its obduracy over talks with Pakistan at Astana? Or will Modi wait till he has met Trump in June?