Despite deepening security threats from the Taliban, India remains committed to Afghanistan. India worries that an ultimate settlement in Afghanistan will bring the Taliban back to power and this will likely be discussed in Delhi during President Obama’s state visit next week. India should be pleased that the Obama administration’s assessment of the ‘Pakistan challenge’ mirrors that of India more than that of the pro-Musharraf Bush administration. But Obama has much to prove to the Indians. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to China first. Both Obama and Clinton made statements attesting to China’s primacy in America’s Asia strategy. This peeved India after years of incessant wooing by the Bush administration, which urged Washington to alter its entire non-proliferation regime to accommodate the controversial Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. India watches with concern as Washington provides military assistance to Pakistan while the Lashkar-e-Taiba/Jamaat-ul-Dawa remains unconstrained and the Afghan Taliban retain state support. India is irked that Washington provides access to weapon systems that are more appropriate to target India than Pakistani insurgents.
In the wake of the recently concluded US-Pakistan strategic dialogue, more defence wares will be on their way to Pakistan. India’s defence minister, AK Antony, summarised India’s concerns in September 2010: "We feel that even though the US is giving arms to Pakistan to fight terrorism, our practical experience is (that)...they are diverting a portion against India.” Obama’s (largely misconstrued) announcement that US troops will begin drawing down military forces from Afghanistan in a conditions-based fashion in July 2011 has been read as “sever and saunter” among Afghanistan’s neighbours. The administration’s assurances that Washington will remain committed to Afghanistan have not dampened regional actors’ contingency planning.
India is no exception. India is a free rider under the US/Nato security umbrella in Afghanistan and worries about sustaining its initiatives in Afghanistan when this umbrella disappears. Indian personnel have been under steady attack in Afghanistan. After the 2008 attack on India’s embassy in Kabul, the Indian Express ran a poignant editorial that captured this dilemma: “New Delhi cannot continue to expand its economic and diplomatic activity in Afghanistan, while avoiding a commensurate increase in its military presence there. For too long, New Delhi has deferred to Pakistani and American sensitivities about raising India’s strategic profile in Afghanistan.”
Some Indian analysts have articulated an explicitly military option. Dr Subhash Kapila argued that since the US exit is a question of when not if, India must begin preparing extensive contingency planning for the ‘day after’ the US exit from Afghanistan. He is joined by others such as Shushant T Singh who argue that “a significant Indian military presence in Afghanistan will alter the geo-strategic landscape in the extended neighbourhood, by expanding India’s power projection in Central Asia.” Others contend that India should push to train Afghan National Security Forces over the objections of the US, Nato, and Pakistan. Other analysts argue that the benefits of Indian presence in Afghanistan are outweighed by the cost. They say that India should do so when the US and other coalition partners reduce their kinetic operations and retract their military footprints, beginning July 2011.
The stakes for India are higher than some may appreciate. India’s efforts to shape the outcome in Afghanistan will be important evidence that India has what it takes to be a power of any consequence outside of South Asia, much less globally. If India cannot effectively shape the course of events in its own ‘immediate neighbourhood,’ how can it lay claim to its great power aspirations at home or abroad?
This is a condensed version of an article that first appeared on Foreign Policy’s Af-Pak Channel on October 27, 2010
Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2010.
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