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Meet regional expert Lisa Curtis, the White House’s liaison for South Asia

Sadiq Naqvi | Updated on: 5 April 2017, 22:24 IST
(File photo)

Lisa Curtis, an old hand in all things India and Pakistan is set to be the new Senior Director in-charge of South Asia at the US State Department. She replaces Peter Lavoy, who served as former president Barack Obama’s point person in the State Department for the region.

Most recently, Curtis was in the news for co-authoring a report for the Hudson Institute with former Pakistani Ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani where they argued among other things that the Trump administration needs to actively send the message out that Pakistan is not an ally.

The Kashmir conflict

Despite her doubts about whether the Trump administration would be willing to mediate between India and Pakistan, like she told an Indian newspaper in a recent interview, Curtis has advised the administration to be prepared for escalation in hostilities between India and Pakistan, and finding out ways to intervene albeit staying away from offering to mediate on Kashmir.

A recent statement by US Permanent Representative to the UN, Nikki Haley, which was seen by some experts saw as US trying to offer to mediate, drew a snub from the MEA. 

"We don't think we should wait till something happens. We very much think that we should be proactive in the way that we are seeing tensions rise and conflicts start to bubble up and so we want to see if we can be a part of that," Haley had said.

The selection

Curtis has been handpicked by new National Security Advisor HR McMaster, who as The Washington Post put it, has been staffing the important national security positions with think tanks, instead of the military intelligence officials that Trump's earlier pick Michael Flynn was keen on in the National Security Council.

Curtis is known to be a conservative and has served as a CIA analyst and as an advisor to the powerful Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, before joining the Heritage Foundation, a powerful think tank close to the new administration.

Her appointment is also important for there have been speculations that the Trump administration may shut down the office of Special Envoy to Af-Pak.

Interestingly, when former president Obama had come up with the idea of a special envoy, their were attempts to include India in his brief, something which was termed as unacceptable by the Indian government. Richard Holbrooke, the first special envoy, thus just had the responsibility of Pakistan and Afghanistan, even though he would travel to Delhi frequently.

Shaking out the leaves

Curtis' appointment could shake things up in the region as India seeks to diplomatically corner Pakistan on its continued inability to rein in and sometime support to anti-India terror outfits which continue to operate with impunity from the neighbouring country.

It could also change the way the US is looking to salvage the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan where the Taliban is regaining its foothold in certain areas, as well as in Bangladesh, where India and the US have had differences over how the democratic processes should function and the reasons for the security mess that the country has been pushed into after a sustained rise of radical Islamist elements.            

A regular in the think tank circles in South Asia, Curtis has been particularly damning in her analysis of the security situation in the region, especially on the role of terror outfits, including the the Haqqani Network which has been active in Afghanistan, and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad, who have been responsible for multiple attacks in India including the Mumbai attack in November 2008.

Curtis’ stance

In an interview immediately after the attack, she had argued how the United States was mistaken in its focus on just the al-Qaeda and not forcing Pakistan to act against Lashkar and Jaish.

"The United States was short-sighted. It focused on just getting Pakistan to focus on the Al Qaeda leadership, and praised Pakistan - rewarded Pakistan for that, and sort of turned a blind eye even to Pakistani support for the Taliban and to these militants," she said in the interview.

In the recent report for Hudson Institute, she argued how the US should not fall for excuses by Pakistani officials who privately argue Jaish-e-Muhammad or Lashkar-e-Taiba are too powerful and pervasive for the military establishment.

“The US should no longer settle for Pakistan’s excuses for delaying a full-throttle crackdown on these terrorist groups and should instead hold Pakistan accountable for the activities of all terrorist groups on its soil,” reads the report.

Curtis sought to put counter-terror conditions on the US military aid to Pakistan. “The US must also recognise that its efforts over several decades to strengthen Pakistan militarily have only encouraged those elements in Pakistan that hope someday to wrest Kashmir from India through force,” she wrote, arguing how it makes no sense for the US administration to continue with military aid to Pakistan without counter-terrorism conditions. 

“Even though counterterrorism conditions on military aid have been in place for the last seven years, the Obama administration for several years used its national security waiver authority to bypass the legislative conditions.”

Engagement and cooperation

Recognising how the Pakistani intelligence agencies have been putting a spanner in the talks with the Taliban, she argues that the US administration must engage with the Taliban to get them to the negotiating table, while not tying up its military presence in Afghanistan as the precondition. And that it must put a cost if Pakistani agencies were to try to thwart serious efforts in negotiations.

Even on Bangladesh, where India has been suspicious of the US, Curtis, in another report for the Hudson Institute, argued that the US facilitate more India-Bangladesh co-operation to cut down the Chinese influence.

According to her, “the US should also consider greater trilateral cooperation among the three countries, especially in areas like counterterrorism, maritime security, economic development, and democracy building” while accepting how such “trilateral cooperation could be a hard sell with both Dhaka and New Delhi”.        

“Bangladeshi leaders might become more receptive to trilateral cooperation, if they believe it will bring them tangible security and economic benefits. New Delhi could become more open to the idea if it sees such cooperation as helping to blunt Chinese regional influence,” she writes. 

Her appointment is good news for India, but as a former diplomat points out, one must allow the new Trump administration’s policies on the region to unravel and let her settle-in before jumping to conclusions about the future.

First published: 5 April 2017, 22:24 IST