On Asim Munir’s First Trip to Washington Amidst Shaky India-US Relations

India's take is that US has wasted an opportunity to caution Munir about the consequences of exporting terrorism.

4 min read
Hindi Female

Pakistani army chief Asim Munir’s first official visit to the United States (US) more than a year after occupying the most powerful post in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation across the Line of Control, is hugely significant from the Indian government’s perspective.

There is an unmistakable sense of relief in Washington that Munir, who is somewhat of a recluse and an unfamiliar figure because he did not go to any Western military academy, unlike his predecessors, at last, found the time for an extended, unhurried and leisurely engagement with the Who-is-Who of the US defence-cum-security establishment and the State Department.


The Washington-New Delhi Equation Right Now

India naturally has a deep interest in Munir for very obvious reasons, but his American hosts too made the most of the opportunity to size up the general. Importantly, the Joe Biden administration rolled out the red carpet and turned on their fabled charm offensive, treating Munir almost at par with a visiting head of state.

From New Delhi’s viewpoint, the timing of Munir’s visit is critical. He landed in America the very same day (12 December) President Biden jolted India by finally saying ‘no’ to the invitation to be the chief guest at the Republic Day parade on 26 January. The implications of Munir’s countless closed-door meetings with America’s movers and shakers at a time when India-US ties have hit a speedbreaker, can’t be overemphasised.

The trust component in the Washington-New Delhi equation, which bothers Islamabad no end, has suddenly gone for a toss because of the foiled plot to murder a Sikh separatist leader – and Biden’s refusal to visit India is no doubt a direct fallout. In that sense, Munir hit pay dirt.

Remarkably, the general’s visit also coincided with India’s Supreme Court putting its seal of approval on the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special constitutional status through the abrogation of Article 370 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in August 2019.


Munir Met All the Top US Officials

The finalisation of J&K’s merger with India by the court ruling is bound to have figured prominently in Munir’s talks with highly placed US officials, who not only monitor J&K closely given its centrality in India-Pakistan hostilities but keep offering to mediate so that the nuclear-armed neighbours don’t cross the red lines and go to war over it. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres too discussed Kashmir developments with the general.

It goes without saying that Munir’s confabulations will have a direct bearing on India’s security interests. The intractability of New Delhi’s Kashmir headache is evident from the killing of four Indian army soldiers by terrorists in Poonch on 21 December, while Munir was rubbing shoulders with America’s senior-most security and defence administrators on his maiden tour of the US.

Barring Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, Munir held several rounds of meetings with all the top US officials a visiting dignitary could possibly meet. The general’s official host, Defence Secretary Lloyd J Austin, an ex-general, appeared over-eager to strike a personal rapport with Pakistan’s army chief. Besides Austin, Munir was closeted with Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Charles Q. Brown, and was feted by the Commander of the US Central Command, General Michael Erik Kurilla, at Centcom’s headquarters at Tampa Bay, Florida.

Piecing together Munir’s engagements with top military officeholders, a Pentagon spokesperson described Pakistan as a major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) ally and a NATO partner – which India is not – and said that the talks focussed on regional security and defence cooperation. While this announcement might seem bland, its sole objective is to deeply underline Pakistan’s importance in the US scheme of things and worldview.


Washington's Frittered Opportunity to Caution Munir

But the trumpeting at this juncture; when India-US relations are not exactly what they used to be; has its own significance and is probably intended to needle New Delhi. The US is adept at playing these mind games with countries like India and Pakistan which lead a hyphenated existence and are often clubbed together whether they like it or not.

The State Department too made Munir feel wanted. He engaged with both Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, and Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Importantly, he also held meetings with National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Deputy National Security Advisor Jonathan Finer, besides unannounced and unpublicised sittings with Central Intelligence Agency chief, William J Burns, whose details are not yet in the public domain.

There is little doubt that the Americans pumped Munir for inside information on Pakistan’s descent into the mess it is currently in, with its economy in tatters and the coalition government in a holding operation before the national elections due next year. Munir, on his part, is believed to have assured his hosts that Islamabad’s alignment with Beijing is not — and will never be — at the cost of its ties with Washington.

I think that his interlocutors had no reasons to disbelieve him as they know how critically dependent Pakistan is on the US for its economic revival from the dumps, F16 spares, IMF assistance and respite from the FATF – which were discussed threadbare with the general.

In its first response to Munir’s visit on 21 December – the very same day terrorists killed four Indian soldiers in Kashmir’s Poonch area even as the Pakistan general was being mollycoddled in Washington – New Delhi openly and officially gave vent to its displeasure at the warm reception he got in America and signalled its disappointment at Washington’s failure to wean the Pakistani army from using terrorism as a foreign policy tool.

Questioned specifically about Munir’s flurry of meetings with senior-most US officials, Arindam Bagchi, External Affairs Ministry’s spokesman, remarked: “We did see some reports about these meetings. Our concerns about Pakistan’s support for terrorism and its support for cross-border attacks are well known. We hope that other countries would also take counter-terrorism seriously.”

Shorn of diplomatese, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government’s take on Munir’s US visit, articulated by Bagchi, is that Washington has frittered away an opportunity to caution the general about the dire consequences of exporting terrorism to India – and New Delhi would therefore deal with it as it deems fit.

(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Asim Munir 

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