US diplomacy advances in South Asia - despite leadership vacuum

While US President Donald Trump's diplomacy has run into turbulence almost everywhere, South Asia is one of the few areas where it has made some headway

Arul Louis May 28, 2020
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While US President Donald Trump's diplomacy has run into turbulence almost everywhere, South Asia is one of the few areas where it has made some headway. Yet the irony is that it is the only region throughout his entire four-year term for which Trump has not had a full-fledged State Department official approved by the Senate overseeing it. Career diplomat Alice G Wells, who took charge of the region as the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in June 2017, steered Washington's diplomacy through this void, retired on May 22 capping a 31-year foreign service career that included stints as political officer in US missions in New Delhi and Islamabad.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged her pivotal role in the region, saying in a tweet, “I will miss Alice’s wise counsel and dedicated efforts to build relationships and address challenges across South and Central Asia.”

“I personally came to admire Ambassador Wells’ dedication to our team’s mission and her dogged pursuit of American excellence,” he said.

Looking back at relations with India during her tenure, Wells said at a digital event at the Atlantic Council on May 20, “I’m proud that our maturing relationship has allowed us to develop a new degree of resiliency and self-confidence.”

Her diplomatic success in dealing with New Delhi was in explaining India to the US and US concerns to India. Her tenure saw the focus of Washington-New Delhi relations turn to the Indo-Pacific region as Trump's administration strategically drew India into the Pacific region where it sees New Delhi as a counterweight to Beijing's assertiveness in the area.

Thomas L Vajda succeeded Wells in the acting role with a portfolio that also includes the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Also a career diplomat, Vajda was the Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asia and had done a stint as the consul-general in Mumbai.

Only midway through Trump's term did he even try to appoint a top diplomat for the region and it was unsuccessful. He named a career intelligence officer with Afghan experience, Robert Williams, and sent his nomination to the Senate for approval.

But the nomination of William, who was the Associate Deputy Director for Intelligence and Directorate at the Defense Intelligence Agency, was withdrawn four months later in April last year with no reason given. According to The Washington Examiner, a conservative publication with insights into the administration, Williams withdrew for “family reasons.”

An intriguing element in his nomination was that the White House announcement said it was for “Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs” while previously the designation was “Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs.”

Nisha Desai Biswal had Central Asia in her title when nominated by former President Barack Obama and approved by the Senate. She was the last official to formally head the region's diplomacy with the Senate's approval, a requirement for positions at that level as well as for ambassadors. She took over the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in October 2013 and quit in 2017 when Trump came into office.

The office was initially set up in 1992 as a separate Bureau of South Asian Affairs, splitting the region away from Near Eastern Affairs recognising the importance of India and the region following a campaign by the late Representative Stephen Solarz. He and the Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced the Congressional resolutions to set up the bureau and have an Assistant Secretary of State head the regional diplomacy.

Central Asian Affairs was added to it from the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs recognising the links between countries in that region with US-Afghanistan policies.

Currently, two most important ambassadorships in the region are also vacant – Islamabad and Kabul.

David Hale, who was appointed the ambassador to Pakistan in 2015 by the Obama administration, left in 2018 to become the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and has not been replaced. Appointed by Trump as envoy to Afghanistan in 2017, John R Bass left office in January in the midst of Washington's attempts to reach a deal with the Taliban to facilitate scaling down its military presence in Afghanistan and eventually leaving.

Despite the diplomatic vacuum in the region, other high-level involvements helped cement ties or push other US objectives.

Trump's personal rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi brought the two countries closer together diplomatically and strategically, even though differences remain, especially in trade.

Wells said the resilience and self-confidence that have grown in the relations between the two countries “allow us to navigate differences on issues like trade, sanctions and visas.”

She added, “Good friends can have candid conversations about even the most difficult topics and that’s why we continue to engage on issues like human rights and religious freedom.”

Wells deftly managed the competing pulls of the diplomacy, even when it meant setting the record straight on US policy to clear the mess created by Trump himself.

Trump set off a political furore in India with the outlandish claim last July that Modi had asked him to be a “mediator or arbitrator” on Kashmir, Wells stepped in to defuse the situation by reiterating in a tweet the US recognition that it was a bilateral issue.

On another occasion she has said that the conditions for talks between the nuclear-armed neighbours hinges on "Pakistan's seriousness of effort in ensuring that groups don't take advantage and engage in cross-border infiltration.”

Memorably, Wells had to explain to a Democratic Representative, Anthony Brown, that India was not as he thought a banana republic. India-US relationship is not one of “dictation” but of “partnership” she said at a hearing of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific.

She told him that India was a country of 1.3 billion people that has survived four wars, the suspension of the constitution under then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, “Maoist insurgencies and insurgencies in Kashmir, and at the same time it has continued to lift people out of poverty and incrementally make advances. We respect that.”

She also spoke of the other side of dealing with New Delhi: "When we see Indian institutions have failed or respond slowly it is something that we take up.” She explained to US legislators and critics of India that it is a functioning democracy with a freely elected parliament and an independent judiciary.

Although not taking a position on the abrogation of Indian Constitution's Article 370 giving Kashmir a special status, she has also expressed concern over the restrictions India's central government has placed in the Union Territory and over human rights issues.

While emphasising that Pakistan has to curb terrorism, she has also said that US was "pleased” that Islamabad was taking steps towards fulfilling its Financial Action Task Force obligations, and also acknowledged that it was not quite there yet to get off the organisation's “grey list” of those found wanting in curbing funding of terrorists.

China and Pakistan have harshly criticised her for pointing out that Chinese projects in Pakistan are going to take a growing toll on the Pakistan economy, especially when the bulk of payment starts to come due in the four-six years.

As with India, US-Pakistan ties were helped along by direct high-level ties between the leadership necessitated by Washington needing Islamabad's help for its diplomacy with the Taliban to help accomplish Trump's election boast of getting US troops out of Afghanistan.

US special envoy on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, plays an overarching role there despite the absence of an ambassador in Kabul. He is backed by an experienced diplomat, Ross Wilson, who was brought back from retirement to head the embassy as charge d'affaires. 

(The writer, a New York-based journalist, is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow of the Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached at arullouis@spsindia.in)

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