The US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta was in South Asia last week and his visit to India drew a lot of attention as he underscored the need for Washington and New Delhi to deepen security ties and defence cooperation in the region. As the troops led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) prepare to depart from Afghanistan and Washington refocuses its strategic energies on managing China’s growing prowess in the Indo-Pacific, Panetta was trying to reaffirm America’s commitment to viewing India as a valuable partner and to get a sense of what India thinks about the rapidly evolving strategic realities in its vicinity.
But what was most striking was Panetta’s suggestion that India should be more proactively involved in Afghanistan. After more than a decade of trying to make sure that India does not attain centrality in Afghanistan’s strategic calculus, Washington is reviewing its options. The irony must not be lost on those in the US who have for long asked India to keep a low profile in Afghanistan so as not to offend Pakistan. As it turned out, India is now considered a major stakeholder and should be courted for long-term sustainable development in South Asia.
So, in a speech in New Delhi, Panetta underscored the importance of having a stable Afghanistan for peace and prosperity in the larger region and urged India to help Afghanistan during and after Nato’s exit by supporting Kabul through trade and investment, reconstruction and help for Afghan security forces.
As the West moves out, India will remain one of Afghanistan’s largest aid providers. This month, India will be bringing together regional investors from countries as wide ranging as China, Turkey and Pakistan in an attempt to shape up the investment climate in Afghanistan. The Indian private sector has invested more than $10 billion in Afghanistan. This includes a consortium of public and private Indian companies, led by the state-owned Steel Authority of India that won a bid to mine in three states in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the US-Pakistan ties continue to deteriorate. The US has been pushing Pakistan to open its border to Nato supply convoys and reopen vital supply routes that remain blocked since a US airstrike in November last year that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The talks have led to nowhere with tensions rising on both sides. Washington’s strategy of relying on Pakistan to achieve its aims in Afghanistan has come to nought. Pakistan now is almost universally viewed as the biggest obstacle in stabilising Afghanistan since the sanctuaries in Pakistan continue to provide an almost unlimited supply of the Taliban and Al Qaeda affiliates.
Panetta was acerbic in his criticism of Pakistan, making it clear that policy-makers in Washington are “reaching the limits” of their patience in dealings with Pakistan. The US has indicated that despite Pakistan’s displeasure, Washington has become even more willing and quick to strike targets inside Pakistan. The Haqqani network is as big a threat to Pakistan as it is to Afghanistan, India and the US.
As Nato troops depart, it is expected that Afghan forces, working with US advisory teams, will be used to fill in the gaps in the eastern and south-western parts of Afghanistan. The US now wants India to significantly expand its role as a trainer of Afghan security forces. India, for its part, has also been calling for greater coordination with the US on Afghanistan.
Pakistan, of course, cannot be ignored despite its refusal to change its policy priorities. The US defence secretary was categorical that both India and the US “will need to continue to engage Pakistan, overcoming our respective and often deep differences”. In this context, he welcomed India’s recent progress in boosting trade ties with its neighbour as being key to “helping Pakistan turn around its economy and counter extremism within its borders”.
Since 2001, India has primarily relied on its “soft power” in wooing Kabul. It is one of the largest aid donors to Afghanistan and is delivering humanitarian assistance as well as helping in nation-building projects in myriad ways. India is building roads, providing medical facilities, helping with educational programmes in an effort to develop and enhance long-term local Afghan capabilities. India would be loath to see the political and economic capital it has invested in Afghanistan go waste. Since India was not consulted prior to the announcement of plans for the withdrawal of American forces by the Obama Administration and there has been little attempt to make India part of the larger process of ensuring a stable Afghanistan after 2014, a perception has grown in New Delhi that it is on its own if it has to secure its vital interests in Afghanistan.
As Washington and Kabul turn a new page in the Afghanistan saga, New Delhi should be keen to take this opportunity to make it a more credible actor in its neighbourhood. The Washington-Kabul strategic partnership agreement provides India with crucial space for diplomatic manoeuvring so as to regain the lost ground and expand its footprint in a neighbouring state where it remains hugely popular despite the lack of seriousness in its own policy approach. Now, New Delhi should cease complaining and step up to the plate in consonance with its role as a major regional player.
Panetta’s message to India was clear that India can help in shaping a stable balance of power in the Indian Ocean region and Asia as well as contribute to the stabilisation of Afghanistan and, unlike in the past, Washington welcomes a proactive role by New Delhi. The ball is now in India’s court. It can either accept this opportunity and leverage the US keenness to reshape India’s regional and global role, or else remain marginal to the rapidly evolving strategic realities.
The author teaches international relations at King’s College, London