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Why Afghanistan could dominate talks with Obama

Last updated on: November 04, 2010 09:01 IST
The Obama visit coincides with a critical stage of America's longest war in Afghanistan.

This will occupy much of the behind-the-scenes activity, which is the core of each other's national security concern, notes Shanthie Mariet D'Souza.

It is not altogether a surprising feat for a US President, touring India in his first term, to generate such intense media interest in this country. President Barack Obama's visit after all finds parallels to similar tours undertaken by President Jimmy Carter way back in 1978 and President Richard Nixon nine years prior to that.

Expectations are certainly high on the deliverables following the India-US nuclear deal signed during the George Bush presidency. However, it remains a fact that though the present visit will not match the earlier symbolism, the focus would be more on traditional areas of cooperation in addition to emphasis on greater economic cooperation, arms sales, nuclear issue, global commons and so on.

More importantly, this visit coincides with a critical stage of America's longest war in Afghanistan. This will occupy much of the behind-the-scenes activity, which essentially is the core of each other's national security concern.

President Obama's announcement of an Af-Pak strategy caused a lot of initial concern in New Delhi. Analysts in New Delhi viewed it as a 'reductionist' strategy of containing the conflict at four levels -- Afghanistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan-Pakistan and the unstated goal of improving Indo-Pakistan relations, especially with regard to the conflict over Kashmir.

Likewise, Western analysts were not far behind in pointing out to the India-Pakistan competition as detrimental to Afghanistan's stability. There have been increased calls for the US to play a 'mediating role' in the New Delhi-Kabul-Islamabad axis, while remaining oblivious to the fact that the US strategy in Afghanistan, thus far, has been far from successful in its own difficult relationship with Iran and Russia.

Of particular consequence has been the increased Iranian role in the Afghan souffle, as a factor to raise the ante for the American presence in its neighborhood.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the US will not be able to abandon its role in Afghanistan in a hurry, certainly not by the facile deadline of July 2011.

India, which has painstakingly built its image through a network of development aid projects in Afghanistan, many times incurring enormous costs, too remains committed to stay put in that country. Some commonality on the end game in Afghanistan is, thus, bound to emerge.

As the Afghan military stalemate continues, there seems to be some convergence on Indian and American thinking on seeking a political solution. Whereas the US now seems open to negotiations with the Taliban, India too has shed its initial reservations and remains supportive of the Hamid Karzai government's peace processes.

The main point of divergence, however, remains with Pakistan playing a predominant role in the negotiations.

The other point of commonality between India and the US is the need to continue military operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda combine. Even while not being a part of the military campaign, India backs the US and NATO efforts.

Given the linkages of the Taliban-Al Qaeda combine with groups like Lashkar-e-Tayiba, there has been greater concern of the shifting base of these groups inside Afghanistan. The recognition of this shared threat and means to address these transnational linkages of these groups would figure prominently in the discussions.

What, however, sets India and the US apart is the means employed to seek a final solution to the Afghan conundrum. One crucial area of difference is US 'over' dependence on Pakistan and the almost inexplicable military assistance provided to the Pakistan Counter-Insurgency Capability Fund, without much accountability.

A sizeable portion of this aid has augmented the conventional fighting capacity of the Pakistani army vis-a-vis India, even while the aid is primarily directed at the making the latter more counter-insurgent capable.

A new five-year package military aid funding by the US to Pakistan has been increased from $1.5 billion (about Rs 6,750 crore or Rs 67.5 billion) to over $2 billion (about 9,000 crores or Rs 90 billion). The military hardware includes F-16 fighter jets, missiles, laser-guided bomb kits and surveillance drones. These would less serve any counter-insurgency purpose and are more likely to be used in future conventional wars.

Pakistan's geographical proximity with Afghanistan and the location of the much of the Taliban-Al Qaeda's fighting force in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas has turned it into an invaluable asset and a key ally of the US. However, the Pakistan army's tactical avoidance of targeting the Pakistan Taliban, from whom India perceives greater threat, leaves much of Indian concerns unaddressed.

Pakistan continues to remain a puzzle for American and Indian policy-makers. Given the futility of dealing with a belligerent Pakistan army and a weak civilian government, both could engage various constituencies in Pakistan in the non-military sphere which includes trade, transit, business and commerce, thereby building on the constituencies of peace.

A fallout of the US Af-Pak policy has been attempts by India revive its ties with Iran and Russia. Both countries, traditional allies of India before the latter treaded on the US-led strategy, remain crucial to the long-term stability of Afghanistan.

Although much of India's efforts at regional diplomacy are at an early stage and will find it difficult to make much headway, it can play a role of a 'bridging power' in bringing together the great powers.

A regional solution to the Afghan problem still is a viable option and it is here that India becomes relevant. India, positioned in a difficult neighbourhood, has the potential of playing an important role in the regional diplomacy.

Even though the Obama administration keeps talking about this possibility, it appears clueless how to go about it. This American difficulty can be eased by active Indian diplomacy and projection of its ability. While in India, Obama can certainly explore such possibilities.

In the eyes of the Afghans, India is a friend. Even while not sharing a direct border and having no ethnic affiliation with the Afghans, India is still seen as impartial. India's aid and developmental activity is well received. One hears chorus of the need of greater Indian aid even in Jalalabad, bordering Pakistan.

This author's recent discussions with the Governor of Nangahar, Gul Agha Sherzai, during an Indo-Afghan musical concert hosted at his palace brought to light the greater need for India's reconstruction activities ranging from restoration of cultural ties to greater economic development. This finds resonance among the locals who ask for unveiling of big projects like roads, dams, cold storage to access to health services.

Expectations on India are, thus, big. This feel good factor which India generates in Afghanistan can emerge as an inalienable part of the 'build and transfer' component of present counter-insurgency strategy of the US and the NATO. In addition to the guns and the smoke, such soft power must be factored into the present counter-insurgency strategy.

Hopefully, Obama will have the vision and determination to make a new beginning.

Dr Shanthie Mariet D'Souza is a visiting research fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, Singapore, and associate fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, New Delhi.

Also read: Complete coverage: The Obama visit

Shanthie Mariet D''Souza