US moves stoking tension between India and Pakistan

Trump administration's 'preferential treatment' of India will anger Pakistan and its powerful intelligence agency

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis had to do some elaborate diplomatic two-steps during their swing across the Indian subcontinent last week.

And that goes way beyond being forced to deny that either was the anonymous author of the stunning New York Times column disclosing that senior officials in the administration of President Donald Trump were "working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations".

Beyond the backdrop of reported tension over Mr Trump's mimicking of the accent of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there were the Gordian-like questions of choosing the United States' greatest friend between the arch rivals India and Pakistan.

The visit did not get off to a very auspicious start.

Back in January, Mr Trump accused Pakistan of rewarding past US military assistance with "nothing but lies and deceit" by continuing to grant safe haven and support to Taliban insurgents waging an unrelenting war against American forces in Afghanistan.

Congress promptly withdrew US$500 million (S$410m) in aid. Then, on September 1, the Pentagon cancelled another US$300 million in military aid.

A Pentagon spokesman attributed this to "a lack of Pakistani decisive actions in support of the South Asia Strategy".

But Pakistan installed a new prime minister, Mr Imran Khan, in August, so Mr Pompeo felt it was worth a stab at a re-start.

Hence his first stop, in Islamabad, to meet the one-time World Cup winning cricketer.

Afterwards, there was a cold dose of reality as Mr Pompeo observed he had enjoyed the meeting but there was "a long way to go" before military aid would start flowing again.

The problem is that right after this backslapping fly-by, Mr Pompeo went to New Delhi, where he was joined by Mr Mattis, and where their preferential treatment of India set the scene for aggravated tensions between India and Pakistan.

The headline move by Mr Pompeo and Mr Mattis during their stop in India was the signing of a major military communications accord, two decades in the making, that provides for a real-time exchange of encrypted data on the same military-grade communications equipment used by the American armed forces.

But one key issue was left unresolved: India's willingness to ignore US sanctions against Russia and Iran.

India is planning to buy advanced air-defence systems from Russia and want to continue purchasing oil from Iran - a close and cheap provider of 10 per cent of the energy needs for India's booming economy. Mr Pompeo said only that talks are underway over waivers for both deals.

Indeed, if India bows to Washington's pressure to cut ties with Russia, it is not impossible to envision Pakistan becoming a most attractive alternative for Kremlin largesse and closer ties than ever before.

What Mr Trump wants from Pakistan is to ease off aid to the Taliban, weakening their fighters enough to force them to the negotiating table and thereby enable the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan.

But the reality is that no matter how much Mr Khan would love to see US$800 million flowing again into Pakistan's coffers, he'll face a hard battle to persuade his powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency to crack down on entrenched Pakistan-based Taliban networks that share the Islamic State's hatred for India.

The writer is a former foreign correspondent for the New York Times and CBS News. This is an edited version of an article that was carried by Reuters.