Friendly face in Trump team
New Delhi, Feb. 15: The White House has appointed the current defence attache at the US embassy in New Delhi to an influential position in its National Security Council, offering India its first familiar face in the senior bureaucracy of the Donald Trump administration.
The appointment of Brigadier-General Robin Fontes as senior director for India, Pakistan and Central Asia at the NSC came a day after Trump's national security adviser (NSA) Michael Flynn resigned amid controversy, worrying India. Flynn was the only cabinet-ranking member of the Trump administration who had met his Indian counterpart, NSA Ajit Doval, in Washington last month.
But the appointment of Fontes has helped reassure New Delhi that India's concerns will find voice in the Trump administration's national security considerations, senior officials familiar with the outgoing defence attache told The Telegraph.
Fontes had demonstrated an understanding for both India's security concerns - involving Pakistan and China principally - and the potential for gains from a tighter strategic handshake between the two sides during her two years at the US embassy here, the officials said.
It was an understanding she also appeared to carry with her to New Delhi, when she was appointed attache by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) - to which she belongs - in December 2014.
"(India) is a very important country to (the United States) in the Pacific Region," Fontes said, in a December 10, 2014, statement from the Pentagon. "Developing good relations with India is key to meeting our national security objectives."
Fontes is the first woman to have been appointed defence attache at the US embassy in New Delhi. She will now be replaced here by Brigadier-General David E. Brigham, currently the deputy director in charge of strategy, plans and policy in the office of the deputy chief of the US army. Brigham has served in Germany, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Korea.
New administrations in the US routinely appoint fresh faces to key posts in the senior bureaucracy, and these appointees are often influential in directing policies with specific countries.
Knowing key appointees better helps, and particularly with an administration whose political leadership - including most of the Cabinet - is little known to the Indian establishment.
But Fontes's career elevation also carries messages that sections of South Block - home to the ministry of external affairs - were quick to read today.
Trump's predecessor Barack Obama had separated the Central Asia desk within the NSC - the President's top body on national security consultations - from the team that handled India and Pakistan.
That created an ambiguity within the US administration, because South and Central Asia are handled by the same team - led by Indian-origin diplomat Nisha Biswal during Obama's final two years - at the state department. Central Asia includes Afghanistan, a country both India and Pakistan view as crucial for their national security interests.
By restoring to Fontes charge of both Central Asia and the South Asian neighbours, the Trump White House has brought the NSC and the state department into synchrony.
But Fontes's mandate also feeds into suggestions the Indian government has received in its early interactions with the Trump administration that it would like New Delhi to take on a larger security role in Central Asia, including Afghanistan.
The White House, in a read-out on Trump's telephone conversation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on January 24, said the two leaders "discussed security in the region of South and Central Asia".
Trump has indicated a desire to reduce American troop presence overseas, and Indian officials said they expect pressure to contribute militarily to counter terrorism in Afghanistan, and perhaps even in West Asia.