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Monday, July 16, 2012

New Delhi must respond to the convergence of U.S.-Indian interests in Afghanistan's future

Special to The Japan Times

LONDON — The Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan (July 8) ended by adopting a declaration that echoed Indian concerns when it adopted a declaration recognizing that "the main threat to Afghanistan's security and stability comes from terrorism and that this threat also endangers regional and international peace and security."

The donor countries made it clear that they are determined "never to allow Afghanistan to become a sanctuary for international terrorism again."

Just a few days back, underscoring its role as Afghanistan's main economic partner, India hosted the Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan, where it called upon the private sector in the regional states to invest in Afghanistan "to create a virtuous cycle of healthy economic competition in Afghanistan."

The Indian external affairs minister argued that it's time for the "gray suits" of company executives to take the place of the "olive-green or desert-brown fatigues of soldiers" — let CEOs replace the generals.

With the Indian private sector investing more than $10 billion in Afghanistan, India has huge stakes in Afghanistan's economic success. New Delhi is worried about the security vacuum following the military drawdown by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces, which is to begin later this year, and is seeking to retain some influence in the post-2014 strategic landscape in Afghanistan.

India's centrality to Afghanistan's future was underscored by the Taliban's statement after U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's visit to India last month. The Taliban sought to drive a wedge between New Delhi and Washington by suggesting that India has given a "negative" answer to Panetta's wish for greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan.

After years of targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan and beyond, the Taliban seemed to have suddenly recognized that India was indeed a significant country in the region and signaled New Delhi not to think of increasing its profile in the country after 2014 by underscoring that it would be "totally illogical" for Indian policymakers to "plunge their nation into a calamity just for America's pleasure."

This was immediately refuted by the U.S. Department of State, which underscored India's important role in regional security, including the transition in Afghanistan. The United States is now backing a more robust Indian involvement in Afghanistan, thus signaling a long-term commitment to Afghanistan's future.

As part of the third U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue last month, India and the U.S. announced regular trilateral consultations with Afghanistan. Before that, the U.S. defense secretary, on his visit to India, had underscored the importance of having a stable Afghanistan for peace and prosperity in the larger region. It urged India to help Afghanistan during and after NATO's exit by supporting Kabul through trade and investment, reconstruction, and aid to Afghan security forces. There has been a broader maturation of U.S.-India defense ties; Afghanistan will clearly be a beneficiary of this trend.

The U.S. has asked India to place liaison officers in the U.S. Pacific and Central Commands, which bodes well not only for the future of U.S.-India ties but also for the larger regional security priorities of the two states. In recent months, the U.S. has been very vocal in its appreciation of Indian efforts in Afghanistan, which include more than $2 billion in aid for reconstruction and development, support for the New Silk Road Initiative, and training of Afghan security forces.

India has shied away from taking a visible role in bolstering Afghan security except for training a limited number of Afghan security forces. With American backing, India has now agreed to increase the number of Afghan military personnel being trained under the auspices of its military institutions. This is a reversal of America's past reluctance to accept a major Indian role in the training of Afghan forces for fear of offending Pakistani sensitivities.

As NATO forces move out, Washington would like India to step up its role as a provider of regional security. India too has signaled its long-term commitment to stability in Afghanistan by signing the Strategic Partnership Agreement with Kabul last year. There was always a convergence between Washington and New Delhi insofar as their shared vision of a stable and prosperous Afghanistan was concerned.

The differences were in the means to reach that end — when the U.S. was viewing Pakistan as essential to success in Afghanistan while India remained suspicious of Pakistan's intentions.

As Washington has grown disenchanted with the Pakistani role in Afghanistan, its appreciation for India's understanding of regional nuances has also increased.

There is clear recognition now that success in Afghanistan requires elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What is even more striking is Washington's recognition that if India is to play an important role in Afghanistan, it needs Iran's support.

Robert Blake, assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of State, has acknowledged that the U.S. "understood" that India has "important interests" in Iran and that if it wanted to "continue all the important things it is doing in Afghanistan, it must have access to Iranian ports to get its equipment and other supplies into Afghanistan because they cannot do so directly overland through Pakistan."

Though India's willingness to shoulder more responsibilities in managing Afghanistan after 2014 will certainly be a strong riposte to those who were starting to doubt whether New Delhi could ever be a credible partner of Washington, the present government in New Delhi remains distracted and rudderless.

Facing multiple problems on the domestic political and economic front, it is not clear if it has the will and the ability to consolidate the historic opportunities presented by the new turn in Washington.

The evolving ground realities in Afghanistan present India with an opportunity to underline its commitment not only to regional stability but also to a robust partnership with the U.S.

Unless India steps up its role in Afghanistan, it will lose credibility not only with the U.S. but also with the ordinary Afghans who view India very favorably.

Harsh V. Pant teaches at King's College London.

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