The United States is still struggling to bring stability to Afghanistan. Why not ask India to help?
- By Richard FontaineRichard Fontaine is the president of the Center for a New American Security and worked on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during the Bush administration.
President Barack Obama visits India this weekend amid high expectations for the future of the U.S.-India relationship. Yet of the many issues that will be on his plate — civil nuclear cooperation, counterterrorism, China, Pakistan, and all the rest — one that has received very little attention is the foreign-policy issue that today transfixes Washington: the war in Afghanistan.
That needs to change. With the clock ticking down on the war and with the Afghan government and security forces plainly unable to handle matters on their own, the United States should take a new look at what India could contribute to stability in Afghanistan. Obama should use his visit to talk specifics with the Indians about leveraging their support in pursuit of success there. Such a conversation must begin, however, with the understanding that, though the United States and India share nearly identical interests in Afghanistan, they remain opposed on the best way to achieve those interests.
Both the United States and India wish to avoid the re-emergence of a sanctuary in Afghanistan for terrorists with international reach. Both want to stem the destabilizing effect that insurgent success in Afghanistan would have on Pakistan and the wider region. And neither would like to see a superpower defeated at the hands of Islamist extremists, which would provide a major boost in recruitment and financing for the global jihadi movement. These shared interests translate into a series of mutual objectives — to defeat the Taliban, help build the capacity and legitimacy of the Afghan government, and aid the country’s reconstruction.
But then the differences emerge. India has generally believed that embracing Afghan President Hamid Karzai is best; the Americans have blown hot and cold. Obama’s policy is to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011; Indian officials have decried the existence of a public withdrawal timetable. Washington sees Pakistan, despite its many complications, as an inevitable piece of the solution in Afghanistan; India invariably views Pakistan as a part of the problem. Indian policymakers think that talks with the Taliban are pointless at best and dangerous at worst; U.S. officials appear willing to test the idea in order to hasten an acceptable conclusion to the war in Afghanistan. And so on.
That’s not to say that India is standing by idly. New Delhi has committed more than $1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan since 2001, making it the sixth-largest donor to the country, and has provided funds for education, health, power, telecommunications, infrastructure, and food aid. It has constructed Afghanistan’s new parliament building, built roads, and is erecting a dam in Herat. Several thousand Indians are on the ground in Afghanistan engaged in development activities, and India maintains four consulates (in Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-Sharif) in addition to its embassy in Kabul. It is developing Iran’s Chabahar port, which could provide a sea outlet for Indian trade with Afghanistan, and an air base across the border in Tajikistan.
Pakistani officials view these developments with alarm. Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi last year told the Los Angeles Times, "If you want Pakistan focused more on the [threat from Afghanistan in the] west, then we have to feel more secure on the east. There is a linkage there." And in his subsequently leaked assessment, then-commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote last year, "While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India."
So what is to be done? Thus far, Washington has attempted to manage two competing desires at once: to maximize support for the state-building project in Afghanistan, and avoid fueling Pakistani suspicions of Indian encroachment. The United States has gently encouraged Indian reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan while staunchly opposing Indian military or security involvement — and India has accommodated this stance. If the United States had infinite time in Afghanistan, such an approach would make sense — but it doesn’t.
Pakistan’s fears of encirclement are bound to continue no matter what India does. The question for Obama is not whether Islamabad’s concerns will increase as India gets more involved in Afghanistan — they will — but rather whether India’s potential contribution is likely to outweigh the cost of any blowback. On this score, an expanded Indian contribution could be pivotal.
Indian boots on the ground would be a mistake — that would clearly be a bridge too far for Pakistan — but an Indian "civilian surge" could be hugely helpful. In light of India’s great civilian capacity, Washington and New Delhi could expand Indian efforts in the key area of training Afghan civil servants. The police training effort that took place in India in 2002, which saw more than 1,000 Afghan police learn basic policing skills, could be revived and expanded on a priority basis, given both the centrality of police to counterinsurgency efforts and the poor quality of the Afghan police force today.
Meanwhile, the United States should aim to increase the transparency with which various regional actors, including India, conduct their affairs in Afghanistan. While the United States should not indulge Pakistani concerns that are inaccurate or exaggerated, increased Indian openness may enhance confidence in Islamabad. A regional approach could explore the possibility of joint Indo-Pakistani development projects in Afghanistan, as well as agreements that would integrate the three countries economically. Washington could encourage Islamabad to relax its restrictions on transporting Indian exports through Pakistan into Afghanistan (only Afghan exports to India are currently permitted). And the United States, India, and other states in the region could explore ways to enhance trade, transit, and energy linkages.
Better Indo-Pakistani relations would likely prompt an improvement in Pakistan’s efforts in Afghanistan. The question for the United States is how, and whether, to promote a thaw. Although it would be tempting for the United States to get directly involved in trying to mediate talks or prod the two sides on Kashmir, the reality is that the greatest bilateral progress has occurred when Washington stayed out. Not only did the "back channel" between then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh nearly lead to a peace agreement on Kashmir, but between 2004 and 2007 the two sides struck a series of bilateral deals, including pacts aimed at increasing people-to-people exchanges, enhancing bilateral trade, establishing cross-border bus and train services, and encouraging travel between India and Pakistan. Of course, now might not be the time for a breakthrough: Indian officials will justly counter that fresh progress is unlikely to materialize unless Islamabad moves against Lashkar-e-Taiba, which carried out the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, and Pakistan’s weak civilian government would be hard-pressed to make such a deal.
The point is not that there is an easy path through these issues; there quite obviously is not. Yet the U.S.-India relationship has progressed to the point where a concrete discussion about Afghanistan, and the ways in which the United States and India can work together to enhance stability there, is timely and necessary. At this decisive moment in Afghanistan, there can be few higher priorities.