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The elephant in the room on Clinton's India visit
Analysts have noted that with the looming US troop withdrawal, Afghanistan may be India’s problem now. But on US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent India visit, there was very little mention of it.
America’s most admired woman was in town earlier this week for a few days, but somewhat surprisingly, the US administration’s star diplomat didn’t generate the sort of media buzz Indians have grown accustomed to when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits their country.
In a segment titled “India-US ties in a state of drift” broadcast on a leading Indian news station this week, the anchor archly asked her panel of distinguished guests whether US-India relations had “become a bit boring for the media”.
Most of the distinguished panellists agreed that indeed it was a bit boring before they proceeded to bore their audience with a detailed discussion of the implementation of a minutiae-choked US-India civilian nuclear energy pact.
On the other hand, the travelling US journalist pack singled out Clinton’s call on Pakistan to prosecute the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks suspects.
Wedged toward the end of news articles and talk shows though was an issue of critical importance to the US, India and the region former US President Bill Clinton called “one of the world’s most dangerous zones” with two nuclear-armed arch rivals bristling across a disputed border.
The elephant in the room – and the news – was the increasingly pressing business of US and international troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and its implications for a region popularly dubbed Af-Pak-Ind (Afghanistan-Pakistan-India).
Losing the Great Game
Since the 2001 fall of the Taliban, India has been a significant player in Afghanistan with a $1.5 billion developmental assistance, the fifth-largest bilateral aid commitment to the war-torn nation.
In the Great Game heartland, where regional and global powers have long vied for strategic supremacy, India’s assistance has been aimed at containing Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and ensuring that arch-foe Pakistan does not wield a disproportionate influence on any Afghan government.
On both fronts, New Delhi appears to be stuck with a losing hand.
US President Barack Obama’s troop withdrawal plan coupled with Washington’s endorsement of the Taliban peace negotiations risk upturning all of New Delhi’s strategic calculations in Afghanistan.
While Pakistan helped create the Taliban regime and was one of the few nations to recognise its controversial 1996-2001 reign, the hardline Islamist group has been an anathema to New Delhi.
The Taliban regime had a track record of hosting anti-Indian militant groups in Afghanistan.
Some of the Taliban regime’s links with militant groups backed by Pakistan’s ISI spy agency were revealed during the 1999 hijacking of an Indian airliner, which ultimately landed in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar. The hijacking, which led to the release of three militants – one of whom was later implicated in the 2002 killing of US reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan – is an incident few Indians have forgotten.
Post 9/11, Islamabad officially switched sides to support the US-led mission in Afghanistan, but has unofficially maintained ties with the Taliban hoping to maintain its influence in Afghanistan following a US pullout.
That prospect is suddenly at India’s door with all the resulting security implications and the vital question of whether the Indian government’s ventures in Afghanistan are at stake.
“In New Delhi, there is definitely a sense of being let down by the US,” said Sumit Ganguly, a political science professor at Indiana University in a phone interview with FRANCE 24. “There is growing apprehension in New Delhi that India's investments in Afghanistan may be at risk.”
Soothing sounds with little bite
While the civil nuclear pact and the 2008 Mumbai attacks dominated the discussions, Afghanistan did briefly emerge during Clinton’s visit.
Speaking to reporters after meeting with Clinton, Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna stressed the importance of a continued US pressure on Afghanistan.
"It is necessary for the United States to factor in Afghanistan's ground realities so that... Afghanistan will be in a position to defend itself against terrorism sponsored by the Taliban," Krishna said.
For her part, Clinton made the appropriate soothing sounds. "Let me be clear...drawing-down is not the same as disengaging," said Clinton. "We will continue targeting terrorists and supporting the Afghan army and police.”
But experts such as Ganguly believe there’s very little teeth behind the official discourse.
In an article titled “Afghanistan Is Now India’s Problem” on the Foreign Policy website, Ganguly notes that some analysts have argued that New Delhi should offer to train Afghan security personnel in order to enable India to help shape Afghanistan’s political future.
But he adds, “Washington has evinced little interest in promoting that prospect for fear that it would promptly elicit strenuous Pakistani objections. Quite predictably, its [Pakistan’s] political and military leadership will argue that such a policy shift would grant India undue political influence within Afghanistan and prove detrimental to Pakistan's security.”
‘The path of least resistance’
Washington has long been sympathetic to what it calls Pakistan’s “legitimate concerns” of growing Indian interests in Afghanistan. But the recent strains in US-Pakistan relations following the killing of Osama bin Laden has seen Washington less willing to buy the Pakistani military establishment’s persistent anxieties about India.
While India’s concerns of Islamic extremism and terrorist safe havens in Afghanistan dovetail with those of the United States, Ganguly believes New Delhi has been inept at arguing its case with Washington.
“There’s a disconnect in Indian policy,” he said. “On the one hand, the Indian political leadership recognises that Afghanistan is important and that Afghanistan’s security could have a dramatic impact on the region. But on the other hand, there’s an unwillingness to take tough decisions.”
Citing India’s failure to insist on a role in training Afghan security personnel, Ganguly notes that “New Delhi invariably takes the path of least resistance”.
Dealing with the devil
But in a recent major policy shift, New Delhi has dropped its earlier opposition to the negotiations with the Taliban. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh even suggested last month that India would be open to any form of peace deal with the Taliban that is Afghan-led.
“Basically, the Indians realised that they would be totally left out in the cold. If the US was already talking to the Taliban, they decided they could not be more Catholic than the Pope,” said Ganguly. “They made a calculated decision that we may not like these people but if they are going to be part of a future government, we have to deal with the devil.”
Historically, Afghanistan's ties with India have been friendlier than those with Pakistan. A 2009 ABC News poll found 74 percent of Afghans had a favourable rating of India while a near unanimous 91 percent viewed Pakistan unfavourably, reflecting long-tense relations between the two countries.
Across Afghanistan, Pakistan is held responsible for a wide array of ills that have befallen the war-torn nation while Bollywood films are the most popular form of entertainment.
New Delhi’s failure to seize on Washington’s increasingly evident frustration with the Pakistani military following bin Laden’s death has baffled many analysts.
But while the Indian administration may have failed to seize the moment, most analysts agree that India is not about to pack up and quit Afghanistan. As Ganguly notes, “The United States may have the option of washing its hands of Afghanistan, but India does not.”