WASHINGTON: US strategy in Afghanistan is set to be included on the agenda in US-India talks this week in Washington – with Delhi seeking clarity over Pakistan’s role, particularly in reconciliation plans with the Taliban.
The Obama administration is said to be grappling with how to balance India’s role in Afghanistan ahead of Washington’s planned troop withdrawal to start in mid-2011.
The administration has so far sent mixed signals over the kind of role it wants India to play in Afghanistan, leaving an impression at times, say experts, that Pakistan’s strategic interests could have more weight.
While US diplomats have praised the $1.3 billion India has pumped into reconstruction work in Afghanistan since 2001, military commanders have voiced concern that muscle-flexing by India could provoke Pakistan and stir up regional tensions.
“Increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India,” wrote US General Stanley McChrystal, in charge of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in a leaked assessment of the war last September.
“That [comment] sent the wrong signal,” said Curtis. “The US should instead positively reinforce the political and economic activities of engagement by India [in Afghanistan],” added Curtis, who is with the Heritage Foundation.
Senior US officials strongly reject suggestions that Pakistani interests take preference in Afghanistan or that there has been a push to “go slow” in its ties with India.
“I have never heard that,” said one senior US official. “Our consistent line, both privately to the Indians and the Pakistanis, has been that we can have a positive relationship with both countries. In other words, the friend of my enemy is not my enemy in this case,” added the official.
Washington is juggling Pakistani complaints over India’s activities, including building roads close to the border areas and reports of new diplomatic outposts, which Delhi denies.
“My response to Pakistan’s complaints about India is that you are free to do the same thing and to help Afghanistan rebuild,” said the senior US official of Pakistani claims.
One of Delhi’s biggest concerns is the role Pakistan might play in reconciliation moves in Afghanistan, with fears any Afghan plan to broker a deal with the Taliban could undermine India’s security and give Islamabad greater influence there.
One area where the US wanted to see improvement was in resolving Indian and Pakistani differences over the disputed region of Kashmir, said James Dobbins, former US special envoy for Afghanistan.
“The US believes that the prime difference between Pakistan and India is not over Afghanistan but over Kashmir.
As long as there is a divide over Kashmir, they will never agree on Afghanistan,” said Dobbins.
Published in the Express Tribune, June 1st, 2010.