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Will America's Afghan gamble pay off?

June 15, 2012 11:42 IST

By letting Delhi keep an open line with Tehran, the United States seeks to balance its dependency on Pakistan in managing Afghanistan, says Jyoti Malhotra

The US decision to remove India from its list of sanctions against nations who continue to trade in Iran oil has, expectedly, given a boost to the India-US strategic dialogue that has just concluded in Washington, especially, since one of the main motives for the waiver is to encourage India to expand its relationship with Afghanistan.

Since timing is everything in diplomacy, the US has shown by its action that despite the scores of mistakes it has made in the region, it at least understands the nature of the great game still unfolding here.

On its part, India ostensibly stuck to its public position that it would only acknowledge UN sanctions -- and ignore those applied by the US. But, in practice, India has reduced its oil trade with Iran by about a fifth in the last six months. Iraq has now replaced Iran as India's second-largest supplier of oil, while Saudi Arabia still remains the largest supplier of crude.

None other than the US point person for South Asia, Robert Blake, acknowledged India's Iran-Afghanistan connection at an address at the Carnegie Endowment International Peace think-tank in Washington last week. Blake agreed that the US "understood" that India has 'important interests' in Iran and that if it wanted to 'continue all the important things that 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'.

That's a great leap forward for the Americans. Not for nothing is one of the world's big powers realistic about the situation on the ground in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. With Barack Obama seeking re-election by November and committing to withdrawing a majority of US troops by 2014, the Americans must find like-minded countries who can step into the vacuum.

From the Washington point of view, there aren't that many options in the first place. Pakistan, best friend and ally in the war against terror, has been at daggers drawn since the Americans mistakenly killed 24 soldiers and civilian in a strike intended for the Afghan Taliban in November 2011.

The Pakistanis, insisting that the US apologise, have shut the overland routes on which the supplies intended for Afghanistan are moved. The Americans are not about to say sorry, because Obama doesn't want to look weak in an election year. That's the first impasse.

Then there's Turkey, one step removed from the Afghan action; the Central Asian republics, still playing the Russians and the US against each other; and China, certainly not a country that the US wants to be responsible for boosting its already magnified influence in north Asia.

That leaves Iran and India. So guess what -- and why -- just happened.

By moving India off the sanctions list, the US is encouraging it to engage with Iran much more so that it opens out Afghanistan's options and, in fact, reduces its dependency on Pakistan. India is a good country to keep an open line with Teheran.

This is the first step. Indian companies can now, without fear of being slapped around by the US, sell agricultural commodities and drugs and medical equipment to Iran, ostensibly because these are pro-people goods. The second step is not far to see.

Indian companies will likely soon be able to push the development of Iran's Chabahar port, a short truck ride away from the Afghan border, from where supplies can take the Zaranj-Delaram road -- built by India some years ago -- and onwards into Kabul.

To be sure, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna must have briefed his counterpart, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, during their dialogue this week about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's phone conversation with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in mid-May and the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati to India later in the month.

The bitterness between the US and Pakistan is so deep these days that it seems the US is willing to bite the bullet by engaging with its chief enemy, Iran, so that its own dependency on Pakistan is reduced.

The idea, of course, is to bring pressure on the Pakistan army to stop funding and giving shelter to the Afghan Taliban as well as the Haqqani network that commits crimes inside Afghanistan and then escapes back into Pakistan. No prizes for guessing that India has the same motivation.

It's clear, too, that the US is pushing Indian industry to engage much more deeply with Afghanistan, in the hope that Afghanistan can learn to stabilise itself in different ways. On the one hand, it has supported the move to extend the Afghanistan-Pakistan trade and transit agreement to the republics of Central Asia, theoretically allowing Central Asian goods -- and perhaps, energy pipelines, such as from Turkmenistan -- to come all the way to India.

On the other, Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, during his visit to Delhi last month to hold the first meeting of the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership, agreed that India would hold two investors conferences from around the region. These would be organised by two major chambers of commerce -- the Confederation of Indian Industry and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

On its part, the improving relationship with the US allows India to maximise its own influence, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and in Iran. Partnering with a much-weakened US, after its interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, can only enhance Delhi's leverage in the region.
Jyoti Malhotra