Reuters reports that the Obama Administration is grappling with how to balance India’s role in Afghanistan as archrival Pakistan also jostles for influence there ahead of Washington’s planned troop withdrawal starting next year.
Making India the priority was one of the notable foreign policy successes of the Bush Administration but America’s relationship with Pakistan has always been a frustrating factor in South Asia. President Barack Obama was quick to capitalize on the United States’ newfound alliance by inviting his Indian counterpart to the White House last December. Since then however, the administration has remained ambiguous about its commitment.
At the time, Fareed Zakaria urged the president not to neglect India in favor of building a stable Pakistan — which may well turn out to be a futile effort anyway. In order to win the war in Afghanistan, India’s support is indispensable. As the Taliban were forced out of power, Zakaria noted, “the cuisine, movies, and money that flowed into the country were, naturally, Indian.” With $1,2 billion in aid, India is the world’s fifth contributor to the reconstruction of Afghanistan, investing more dearly than even China. After all, it stands much to lose should NATO simply abandon the country. Pakistan might succumb to total chaos with terrorism dripping over the border into India.
America’s current strategy does not seem to appreciate that India’s objectives in Afghanistan, unlike Pakistan’s, are perfectly aligned with its own — “to defeat the Taliban and to support the elected Afghan government.” Islamabad, on the other hand, “has long argued that it has a right to see a pro-Pakistani government in Afghanistan.”
Zakaria gave this warning almost six months ago. Judging from a leaked report written by General Stanley McChrystal, ISAF commander, the United States don’t agree with him. “Increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India,” he noted. In all fairness, that was pinned down in September of last year so a subtle shift in perception may have occurred in the meantime. If it has, India hasn’t seen it though.
The same Reuters wire quotes Assistant Professor Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University, Washington DC, who doesn’t think that “this administration or the previous one knows how to balance our legitimate interests in both Pakistan and India effectively.” The implication of McChrystal’s view, she said, was that India’s approach is not being regarded as helpful while Pakistan’s strategic interests are more in play. What the United States should do instead is “positively reinforce the political and economic activities of engagement by India.”
It’s not just because of Afghanistan that the United States should favor India. Zakaria summed it up best in December when he wrote that “Obama must keep in mind that South Asia is a tar pit filled with failed and dysfunctional states, “save for one long-established democracy of 1.2 billion people that is the second-fastest-growing major economy in the world, a check on China’s rising ambitions, and a natural ally of the United States. The prize is the relationship with India. The booby prize is governing Afghanistan.”