Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 04, 2020
As Republicans dampen Democrats’ criticism on Kashmir by citing India’s counterterrorism imperatives, an opportunity to actualise US-India counterterrorism cooperation emerges
Opportunity to actualise counterterrorism cooperation between India and the US

Following a visit to the region in early January, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells hailed recent developments in Kashmir. Wells said she was “pleased to see some incremental steps, including the partial return of internet service” and the “visit by our ambassador and other foreign diplomats to Jammu and Kashmir”.

Since the Narendra Modi government’s abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir, the ensuing situation in the valley brought US bipartisan support for India under considerable strain. Evident at past October’s Congressional hearing on Kashmir, Republican and Democrats’ staked out divergent conceptions of the role of values in US foreign policy. Democrats criticised the Donald Trump administration’s ambivalence towards the situation in Kashmir as a prime case in point of US foreign policy moving “away from a focus on human rights”. The polarisation on the issue is apparent with Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s  (D-WA-7) House Resolution on urging India to “end the restrictions on communications and mass detentions”, garnering limited bipartisan support. Only 4 of 48 cosponsors are Republicans, in the otherwise largely Democrat-led resolution.

In addition to rallying against American “high standards” on human rights – in lock step with the Trump State Department’s idea of “divorcing” foreign policy from values, Republicans have also cited India’s counterterrorism imperatives. For instance, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-FL-19) made a statement: “India faces many regional and geopolitical threats. Islamic insurgents are a constant threat, spreading terror throughout Jammu and Kashmir and elsewhere in India. We should support the government in Delhi in the continued fight against terror.

Even as this polarisation exacerbates, Republicans’ “support” for India’s counterterrorism imperatives can present an opportunity for the belated actualisation of US-India counterterrorism cooperation.

Limited gains of US-India counterterrorism cooperation

Despite elevated frictions on the trade front, Trump and Modi have ensured, in large parts, the insulation of the bilateral defence dynamic. The same manifests itself in the form of annual consultative dialogues like the US-India 2+2 foreign and defence ministerial dialogue, periodic military exercises such as the recently concluded first-ever tri-service Tiger Triumph exercise, and force interoperability agreements, i.e. the US-India Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA).

US-India counterterrorism cooperation – and homeland security cooperation at-large, have seen some key developments over the years. For example, the India-US Counterterrorism Joint Working Group and Designations Dialogue, the Homeland Security Dialogue between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security, and the recent 2016 agreement to “exchange terrorism screening information”.

However, considering the potentialities of bilateral cooperation in this realm, developments have been modest. It is crucial to note, at the beginning of this century, the US’ shift in approach towards India did not occur solely due to the latter’s potentialities in America’s evolving strategic competition with China. In fact, the Bill Clinton administration recognised natural convergences with India owing to its vibrant democracy and mutual experience with the menace of terrorism. Subsequently, the attacks of 9/11 in the US and the attacks on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, only validated that convergence for the George W Bush administration’s eventual pursuit of the Indo-US civil nuclear agreement – ending India’s pariah status owing to its nuclear programme. Overtime, however, there often has been a lag in political will to similarly insulate this realm of cooperation from irritants on other fronts.

A major factor has been the lack of policy congruence on Pakistan with the US’ continued operational considerations in Afghanistan impeding its efforts to coax Pakistan to cease harbouring terrorists. Progress on US-India counterterrorism cooperation has been staggered also because of transactionalism due to other irritants. In 2018, for instance, the implementation of the Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-6) – an agreement on exchange of terrorist screening information in real-time between the US’ Terrorist Screening Centre (TSC) and India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) – was momentarily “taken off from the agenda”. Reportedly, progress on HSPD-6 had been stalled due to the broader US-India divergence on data-localisation.

With the Republicans’ increased invocation of India’s counterterrorism imperatives running in tandem with the US’ changing approach to global counterterrorism initiatives, however, the year 2020 may be an opportune moment to actualise US-India counterterrorism cooperation. 

The rising relevance of partner nations in American counterterrorism initiatives

In the US, the 9/11 attacks proved pivotal in the restructuring of its national security priorities across the world, spurring an increase in spending towards counterterrorism measures. As per a study by the Stimson Center referenced in Defense News, from 2002-2017, the US has spent an average of 16% of its discretionary budget towards combatting terrorism. The counter terrorism effort has required this extent of public investment into asymmetric operations, systematic approaches with allies and partner nations, weaving trans-national intelligence collection networks, inducting sophisticated technologies – all whilst ensuring sustainable strategies and policy consistency.

The US’ comparative advantages in sustained counterterrorism efforts have been clear in the case of halting the spread of the Islamic State caliphate, which, by 2014, had established contiguous territorial grips over parts in Iraq and Syria and spread concentric circles of insurgent influence – from black markets to foreign-fighter flows to web propaganda – spread throughout MENA states like Egypt and Libya. Then, in 2017, the Islamic State caliphate collapsed in Iraq and Syria, following an intensive campaign mostly led by local forces backed by extensive US-led coalition air support. The same was also followed by the US Special Operation forces’ elimination of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Since then, President Trump has pulled forces out of Syria, relegating the remainder of the fight to regional powers – albeit with much controversy. Moving away from a preemptive approach to halting terror threats before they actualise, the US seems to be shirking the preventive side of the conflict – which includes deradicalisation and reconciliation efforts. The same is apparent in President Trump’s turn to regional powers to now spear the remainder share of the conflict on issues such as the return of foreign fighters.

One may argue, the same to also stem from the Trump administration’s effort to recalibrate its natural security focus. The administration’s National Defence Strategy 2018, for instance, announced “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism,” as “the primary concern in US national security.” At the same time, however, the proliferation of non-state actors remains a continuing concern. Chiefly over the prospect of such actors making successful forays into spreading disinformation via social media, harnessing open-source internet-based computing for asymmetric attacks, and laying their hands on biotech weaponry. Hence, going forward, regional powers will have to assume a greater role in devising holistic counterterrorism efforts.

Given the US’ comparative hard-power advantage in the domain owing to its long experience in rapid-reaction deployment and intelligence gathering, maintaining ties with the US’ 17 intelligence agencies also stands in order – to keep that institutional, apolitical side of its national security establishment engaged.

Incremental gains towards institutionalising US-India counterterrorism cooperation

The discussed institutionalisation of the US-India defence dynamic, can play a pivotal role in counterterrorism cooperation. The same can help the US and India forge institutional links on counterterrorism cooperation in the broader mandate of the Indo-Pacific and away from being raided by policy incongruence on Pakistan.

For instance, last year, the annual exercise between Indian and American armies assumed a counterterrorism focus. The Yudh Abhyas 2019 focused “on specialised drills and procedures involved in counter insurgency & counter terrorist operations in an urban environment.” Similarly, the same year, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) also convened the first Counter Terrorism Table Top Exercise (CT-TTX) for Quad member countries.

Although that grouping between the democratic powers of India, Japan, Australia and the US is primarily animated towards ensuring a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, the CT-TTX helped “assess and validate CT response mechanisms in the light of emerging terrorist threats…to provide opportunities to share best practices and to explore areas for enhanced cooperation amongst participating countries.

Going forward, India and the US must work towards instituting a dialogue between India’s Home Ministry and the US Department of Homeland Security as an integrated joint-dialogue with the US State Department and India’s Ministry of External Affairs. Analogous to the US-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue with foreign and defence cabinet chiefs, this would help elevate counterterrorism cooperation – and homeland security cooperation at-large, as a priority avenue under the ambit of US-India bilateral ties.

Lastly, on divergences on intelligence sharing – like in the case of inking HSPD-6, both countries must consider department-level confidence building measures like, conducting case-by-case review of new profiles that hold Indian citizenship and establishing a hotline between commensurate rank members of the IB and TSC to reduce turn-around time on the reviews.

Thus, pursuing greater departmental links – either in bilateral or minilateral formats, can help in actualising India-US counterterrorism cooperation.

Katherine Bodendorfer is a former Cyber Intelligence Analyst and project leader at WhiteHawk, Inc. and currently International Cybersecurity Analyst at Verescit Tactical Systems. 

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Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani

Kashish Parpiani was Fellow at ORFs Mumbai centre. His interests include US-India bilateral ties US grand strategy and US foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific.

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