The "Great Game" bubbles under Obama's India trip

Published: October 25, 2010

US relations with India have warmed markedly in the past decade. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI / WASHINGTON: Touted as a visit with an emerging economic power, US President Barack Obama’s trip to India in November will also be about how New Delhi deals with that elephant in the room  – the Pakistan-Afghanistan conundrum.

After nine years of war, there are signs the United States and President Hamid Karzai are reaching out to talk to the Taliban, and New Delhi wants to ensure any eventual settlement protects India from the risk of militant groups on its doorstep.

That could mean India reaching out for regional initiatives to ensure a stable Afghanistan, including closer ties with Iran and Russia, all Afghan neighbours worried about the Taliban in their backyard, if Washington cuts and runs.

“There is a realisation in India that the United States is not going to preserve your interests. You are going to have to,” said Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. “India is looking more at having an insurance policy in Afghanistan rather than playing an active role”

India and the United States largely see eye to eye over a range of issues as the former Cold War ally of the Soviet Union increasingly turns to the West. The two may see their interests diverge over Afghanistan, although it is little threat to wider ties, as Obama’s trip, his longest presidential trip to any one country, shows.

India is Afghanistan’s biggest regional aid donor and its $1.3 billion of projects, from building a parliament to a highway to Iran, shows how New Delhi seeks to counter the Taliban.

Washington has been happy to see that aid, but not its ally Pakistan, India’s archrival and fellow nuclear power, especially the Pakistan military which sees Afghanistan as its own backyard.

“India thinks that the US is placing too much reliance on Pakistan in Afghanistan, and it’s not to be trusted,” said Walter Andersen, a former US State Department official now at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

He said Obama could take advantage of India’s rivalry with Pakistan to pressure Islamabad to do more on Afghanistan. “I’ve often wondered why he didn’t do it earlier,” Andersen said.

What India fears most is a return to the 1990s, when the Pakistan-backed Taliban’s rule coincided with a spurt in cross-border militant attacks in India, and a sense that militants could act with impunity in the region.

India has already blamed Pakistan for a “proxy war” in Afghanistan that in recent years has seen a car bomb attack on the Indian embassy.

What is Obama thinking?

The trouble for India is knowing exactly what Obama plans to do in Afghanistan – when will troops be withdrawn, or how many? What influence could the Taliban have in any peace settlement ?

US journalist Bob Woodward’s new book “Obama’s Wars” underscored for many commentators that Obama’s administration is deeply divided over its Afghan strategy.

“Once we have clarity what the United States wants to do, we can play the end game,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, strategic affairs editor of The Hindu newspaper. “Whether for example to better ties with neighbours like Iran.”

That would mean a fine-balancing act over Iran as the United States steps up sanctions. India has already discussed reviving talks over a gas pipeline from Iran and there have been an increasing number of official visits between the two nations.

But so far US ties have improved after hiccups at the start of Obama’s presidency, when New Delhi successfully blocked attempts by Washington to include a Kashmir solution as part of a strategy to bring stability to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

India sees Kashmir as a bilateral issue and dismisses any outside influence.

India’s relations with Pakistan have been at a low ebb since the Mumbai attacks in 2008 when Pakistani militants crossed over to India’s financial hub and killed 166 people.

With Mumbai etched in Indians’ minds, New Delhi will likely tell Washington to be cautious about Pakistan and talking to the Taliban, but New Delhi has so far avoided upping tension with Islamabad, a policy that has won plaudits in Washington.

“There’s no evidence — certainly not in the Woodward book — that the administration thinks of India regarding Afghanistan in terms other than asking it not to pressure Pakistan,” Stephen P. Cohen, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, wrote in an email reply.

India has also showed reluctance to get embroiled further in Afghanistan. Despite its aid, New Delhi has backed off from more ambitious proposals to train the Afghan army and police. “India is a secondary player in Afghanistan,” said C. Raja Mohan, strategic affairs editor at the Indian Express.

So India may push small initiatives, like reinforcing support of leaders linked to the North Alliance – the anti-Taliban grouping which India backed in the 1990s.

“We can’t figure out a way to use India, which is a regional power,” wrote Cohen. The bitter rivals seem destined to play opposing roles in Afghanistan, he said.

on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook

Reader Comments (6)

  • Anoop
    Oct 25, 2010 - 10:24PM

    Iran must be cultivated to help fight the Taliban influence. It is the only other country apart from Pakistan which can give Afghanistan access to a sea port which the Indians have graciously built for them.

    Taliban must be stopped from coming to power at all means. Democracy is the only way.Recommend

  • ahmed
    Oct 26, 2010 - 5:54AM

    @anoop
    .
    Afghanistan has a poverty level of 42% compared to India’s 43% (UNDP 2009).
    .
    Wouldn’t be better if India tried to improve its slums before wasting money on such adventurous missions.Recommend

  • Anoop
    Oct 26, 2010 - 11:26AM

    @ahmed,

    Its not about gaining influence for the heck of it. Our aim is to make sure the violence in Afghanistan doesn’t spill over. During the 1990s when the Taliban were supreme the militants wrecked havoc not only there but in India as well.

    If you think just by diverting money in India without improving governance structure then you are very naive. Its like this you dont stop buying and building tanks when you have a nuclear weapon. Similarly, you have to concentrate on every aspect of life when in governance.

    India is building schools, hospitals, roads and ports for Afghanistan. I consider this money well spent. What is Pakistan spending on in Afghanistan?

    Get your head out of the sand, for once, please. Recommend

  • Nowsherwan
    Oct 27, 2010 - 9:38AM

    @Anoop

    I hope your well spent money goes for the benefit of people, but India has a habit of interefering in sovereign countries’ internal affairs be it Srilanka or Nepal.You must be well aware of the repercussions if India repeats her folly this time again. As far as Pakistan is concerned we are having the biggest proportion of Afghan refugees and we have born the brunt of terrorism far more than India.Just because India is spending money does not make it a major stakeholder,nobody is naive enough to realise the clandestine objectives of this Indian investment. And when you talk about every aspect of life concerning governance, why not improve your affairs first.Common wealth games were a disaster,state sanctioned killings and abductions in Kahmir are surmounting and millions are languashing in slums, would not it be better if India improves her own situation first then improve governance in countries like Afghanistan.Recommend

  • Kamal
    Oct 27, 2010 - 4:01PM

    @Nowsherwan..how can you ever think of giving lectures to us.”CWG was a disaster”,ever if it was how can you say anything about it.Entire pakistan is a disaster and an international migrane.Pakistani can do only two things,
    1.Train Militant
    2.Beg for moneyRecommend

  • Oct 30, 2010 - 5:46AM

    We should have never carried the Taliban baggage in the first place. It has caused more harm than good. No one questions that. Regardless of whether Washington will cut and run or not, if India wants to build a consensus with Pakistan to avoid a return of the Taliban, that seems like a reasonable request. Anything more than that needs to discussed upfront. I also think that we really need to get our strategy right before getting into the stew with Washington. With a long-term perspective in mind, sharing a border with China is a dangerous proposition for us. Pakistan becomes the eye of the storm as the great game is played out between the US, China, and India. And that means Pakistan will become the next Afghanistan for a very long time. It might be worthwhile considering alternatives and compromises where we don’t have a border with China. That would most certainly pave the way for sustained economic growth at par with India. As they say “It’s the economy, stupid.”Recommend

More in World