Date: Fri Dec 19 2008 - 22:32:54 EST
India Wary of U.S. 'Regional Approach'
M.K. Bhadrakumar | 30 Nov 2008
To say that the geopolitics of South Asia is in a state of flux might sound
like a cliché for a region that is nowadays commonly described as the most
dangerous place on the planet. The horrific terrorist attacks on the
western Indian city of Mumbai on Wednesday and Thursday underscore the grim
reality. The region indeed finds itself at a crossroads. There are huge
uncertainties about regional security. The pall of gloom is deepening.
The war in Afghanistan inevitably becomes the focal point. But that isn't
everything. Not a day passes without one form or other of violence gripping
South Asia. And Afghanistan as such has little to do with most of what is
To be sure, the incoming presidency of Barack Obama faces existential
choices vis-à-vis the Afghan war. The choices Obama makes and how the
situation in the region evolves will define the legacy of his term in
office and can well turn out to be a major factor in his re-election bid
four years hence.
The buzzword is already a "regional solution" to the Afghan war. But there
is manifest anxiety among the regional protagonists as to what a
superpower's regional approach might entail. Most certainly, the choices
that the Obama administration will make can be expected to impact on the
60-year adversarial relationship between India and Pakistan, which has been
passing through a phase of unprecedented bonhomie.
Equally, it is getting to be difficult to be certain about the implications
of the current financial crisis on the region's security. One thing is
certain: Obama needs the cooperation of other countries, especially China,
and that will define the way his presidency operates. For India, this is
already quite worrisome.
* * *
Indian strategic thinkers fondly look back at 1998 as the real point of
departure in the adversarial U.S.-India relationship of the Cold War era.
They attribute the reversal in the U.S. thinking toward India to two main
factors. One, the U.S. needed to come to terms with emerging powers like
India to arrest the relative decline in its global standing in spite of its
overwhelming military superiority. Two, the business potentials of the
rapidly growing Indian market attracted the U.S. Thus, within months of
India's nuclear explosion in 1998 and the acrimonious U.S.-India exchanges
that followed, the two countries opened a quiet dialogue aimed at defining
the nature of a new pattern of relationship between them.
Hard-nosed former Indian officials who are familiar with this initial phase
of the U.S.-Indian engagement make it a point to insist that while the
American side was using "glorious terms" to characterize a relationship
involving partnership with India, New Delhi was quite clear from the
beginning about the "deliverables" in any dialogue with the U.S. They
maintain that right from the outset, India had singularly set its mind on
how the U.S. sanctions dating back to the 1974 embargo against India could
be overcome with regard to cooperation in 3 strategic areas, namely,
civilian nuclear activities, civilian space programs and high technology
trade. They say that contrary to popular perceptions, the dialogue was
never that easy and often enough, away from the glare of the media and
public attention, it turned out to be quite acrimonious, involving hard
In other words, they maintain, U.S.-India engagement didn't come easy.
Though the Indians do not openly admit it, the dialogue took a more
purposive form after the unveiling of the National Security Strategy (NSS)
by the Bush administration on Sept. 17, 2002. The NSS is famous for
containing the Bush doctrine of preemptive war. But what attracted India's
attention were three elements in it that Delhi saw as sub-serving its own
aspirations as an emerging big power on the global arena. First, it caught
the Indian imagination that while it underscored the U.S.'s determination
to maintain its global hegemony, the NSS focused on China as a future
potential source of threat to its global strategies. Second, the Indians
perceived that the NSS singled out India as the only country in Asia that
can "balance" China.
Third, India felt a comfort level with the NSS's new thinking which
visualized the U.S. embarking on "mission-based coalitions." For a country
like India, which traditionally shunned military alliances but nonetheless
desired close cooperation with the U.S., this new thinking opened up an
opportunity, insofar as the U.S. was ready, for a new approach to
U.S.-Indian relations, one that eschewed a full-fledged alliance as such in
favor of a strategic partnership that could provide elbow room for Delhi's
It is highly debatable whether the Indians were justified in drawing such
far-reaching conclusions. In many ways, it seems more a matter of
unilateral interpretation consistent with India's own aspirations as an
emerging power. For example, nowhere does the NSS quite explicitly paint
China in adversarial terms. On the contrary, the NSS says, "The United
States relationship with China is an important part of our strategy to
promote a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Asia-Pacific region. We welcome
the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China." True, the NSS
criticizes China for not yet "shedding the worst features of the Communist
legacy," which "hamper its own pursuit of national greatness," but it
nonetheless reiterated that the U.S. "seeks a constructive relationship
with a changing China," and went on to single out the commonality of
interests over combating terrorism, promoting stability on the Korean
peninsula, Afghan problem and other global issues.
Also, the NSS in no way idenitified India as an Asian "balancer" against
China, despite what the Indian strategists seemed to have concluded -- and
indeed later promoted. It says, "The United States has undertaken a
transformation in its bilateral relationship with India based on a
conviction that U.S. interests require a strong relationship with India. We
are the two largest democracies... We have a common interest in the free
flow of commerce, including through the vital sea lanes of the Indian
Ocean. Finally, we share an interest in fighting terrorism and creating a
strategically stable Asia."
But what encouraged the Indian side was the NSS's affirmation that -- in
contrast with past years when concerns about differences over the
development of India's nuclear and missile programs might have dominated
the U.S. thinking about India -- Washington was now prepared to "start with
a view of India as a growing world power with which we have common
strategic interests," based on the belief that a strong partnership with
India would itself incrementally take care of any mutual differences.
Meanwhile, the Indians made certain pragmatic conclusions of their own.
First, that the U.S. holds the key to globalization, meaning that India
simply cannot bypass the U.S. Second, India faced the daunting challenge of
trans-border terrorism originating from Pakistan, and the U.S. is the only
power that can help. Third, the U.S. for the first time appreciates India's
vision that its security doesn't remain confined to safeguarding its
borders and its territorial integrity, but rather that India has a wider
security zone. India also wanted U.S. recognition for its wider economic
zone, and felt encouraged that the U.S. had already begun consulting India
on South Asian issues, which they promptly took to be a tacit
acknowledgement of India's preeminence in its region.
Of course, Bush administration officials did what they could in bilateral
exchanges with the Indians to make the latter feel "special," with some
middle level officials even proposing that the U.S. was devoted to an
agenda of making a first class world power out of India. Indian strategists
began weaving grand dreams of their country's imminent emergence as a
"balancer" in the international system. Senior Indian diplomats even voiced
opinions publicly, and in a patronizing way, that India was getting ready
to work with the U.S. shoulder to shoulder to bring China into the
mainstream global community as a responsible world power. In sum, the
Indians drew satisfaction that the developing strategic partnership with
the U.S. was in every sense a self-fulfilling "grand compromise" that
accommodated the U.S. strategies as a superpower and Indian aspirations as
an emerging global player.
Next page: Enter Obama. . .
It is into this Garden of Eden that Obama is set to enter. There are
indications that Delhi did not quite anticipate Obama's stunning victory in
the U.S. presidential elections. The propensity in recent years on the part
of the Indians to work closely with the pro-Israel, neoconservative circles
and lobbyists in the U.S. -- along with an assessment that, ultimately, the
so-called "Bradley effect" would take hold and the U.S. electorate would
find it impossible to cross the racial divide -- seemed to have influenced
the thinking in Delhi till a very late hour that an Obama victory was a
At any rate, Delhi finds itself in the awkward situation of suddenly having
to adjust to a new reality. Whereas Sen. John McCain would have pursued a
virtually indentical policy towards India as the Bush administration's, the
same cannot be said for the incoming Obama presidency. At the very least,
senior Indian strategists admit that Obama is a "complex personality" and
an "unknown quantity," who is not going to be "as friendly as George Bush."
On the other hand, they argue that ultimately, Obama will have to work
within the box.
They are optimistic that Obama is not going to "reopen" the U.S.-India
nuclear deal and is "not going to be hostile" towards India. They hope that
there will be the "least amount of change" in the U.S. policy towards India
in the Obama administration's foreign policy and, most certainly, "no major
or fundamental change" needs to be expected. They put a brave face forward
and say that arguably, the net result will be that "a more stable
U.S.-India relationship can ensue." They point out in a play of words that
after all, the U.S.-India partnership is not "tactical," but rather
"strategic" for both sides.
Clearly, Obama does not intend to be a "spoiler." But he is most certainly
going to redefine U.S. interests and reset the geopolitics of the South
Asian region, which cannot but tread on India's dream world. The only
charitable explanation that can be given is that by the time the Obama
administration gains traction during the first 100 days of the new
presidency, the incumbent government in Delhi, too, will be on its way out.
The high probability is that the ruling party will fail to get a renewed
mandate to rule India, which leaves the new political dispensation in Delhi
to open a fresh page in U.S.-India relations.
* * *
There is a qualitative change in the international milieu in which the
Obama administration will function. The Indian discourses are seized of new
imperatives appearing in the international system, which suggest that the
U.S. policies cannot remain immutable. From the perspective of South Asian
security, the core imperatives are 3-fold: the U.S. economic crisis,
China's growing role, and the stalemate in the Afghan war.
Indian strategists understand that the crisis in the U.S. economy is
fundamentally different from past cyclical "recessions." Consumer debt
expansion, which is an all-too familiar traditional tool to fuel the
economy, is no longer available. Monetary policy will not suffice. Nor can
a fiscal policy built on tax rebates help to create aggregate demand
sufficient to maintain full employment. The government can spend a lot more
on infrastructure projects to boost employment, wages, and aggregate
demand. But, then, where is the money to come from with a baseline of a
trillion dollar budget deficit? The budget has been hitherto financed by
countries such as Japan, China and the OPEC suppliers of oil. Will they
finance huge new outpourings of dollar debt? At the same time, the bailout
needs are increasing. General Motors and Ford have now joined the queue
behind troubled financial institutions, a queue that is incessantly
We are, therefore, at a potential threshold where the U.S. has no
alternative but to halt gratuitous wars and slash military spending. The
world community is demanding that the reins of the international financial
and economic system are taken away from American hands as a condition for
continued lending to the bankrupt superpower. Is China or Japan or Saudi
Arabia in any mood to finance any new American wars of aggression?
Policy-makers in Delhi need to factor into their thinking this reality
alone -- that the U.S. crisis is beyond the reach of traditional solutions.
Where it concerns India's strategies most is that China is not only an
oasis of economic stability in the present international milieu, but is
also becoming critical to the U.S. for overcoming its crisis. Delhi will
carefully watch the fourth session of the U.S.-China strategic dialogue on
economic issues due in December. It is very obvious that China's massive
international reserves give it a unique standing. Besides, Japan is moving
towards recession and the Persian Gulf states need to husband their
sovereign wealth funds at a time when oil prices have more than halved.
In comparison, the Chinese economy is not facing the danger of a recession
and is more or less protected from external risks. The fall in oil prices
helps China. Bad loans, which made up 50 percent of Chinese banks' assets
ten years ago, make up only 5 percent today. Furthermore, the economy is
not as "export-driven" as might seem. Share of exports in the GDP is only
about 10 percent. Domestic investments, which account for 40 percent of
China's GDP, are the locomotive of growth for the economy. Clearly, there
is no reason for Beijing to lose sleep over a "hard landing" for the
economy in the present-day world crisis. Actually, the drop in consumer
activity in the U.S. and other industrial countries may even make the
cheaper Chinese goods more attractive.
All this places China in a position to finance the Obama administration's
reconstruction plan for the U.S. financial sector. This has immense
strategic significance for world politics, and particularly so for India.
As things stand, each American citizen is in "debt" to China by an amount
of $4000. In other words, Delhi visualizes that China is about to become a
true "stakeholder" in the revival of the U.S. economy.
* * *
All the same, Indian strategists have yet to size up the full magnitude of
the U.S.-China tango -- and its profound implications for world politics.
They can well anticipate that a containment strategy towards China is the
last thing on Obama's mind. What it means in real terms for Delhi is that
the entire package of assumptions on which the U.S.-India strategic
partnership was erected is suddenly looking hopelessly dated. Conceivably,
the Obama administration may end up discarding to the dustbin large chunks
of its predecessor's 2002 National Security Strategy.
Beijing seems to recognize the Indian sensitivities. Recently, People's
Daily newspaper singled out India's role in the financial crisis as the
topic of a commentary titled "India urged to play a new role." It said that
India is one of the "key members" of emerging economies, and it will play a
"decisive role" in the global economic recovery. Notably, it commended the
Indian government not only for its measures to stabilize the economy but
also for "pushing forward the reform on international financial system,
hoping to play a vital role in the process." The timing of the commentary
soon after the G-20 summit meeting in Washington is particularly
interesting. Beijing sees that the financial crisis is providing a window
of opportunity to work shoulder to shoulder with Delhi, as the two
countries have shared concerns, which would also help mitigate to some
extent the negative tendencies that have lately begun creeping to the
centre stage of Sino-Indian relations -- verbal exchanges over the border
dispute, activism by Tibetan activists based on Indian soil, etc.
But the Indian dilemma is acute. India has yet to form a coherent strategy
of its own in coming to terms with China's phenomenal rise as a potential
superpower. This is not difficult to understand, as the unresolved border
dispute acts as an inherent breaking mechanism on the Indian attitudes and
approaches to China. During the past 3-year period, the climate of
Sino-Indian relations steadily plummeted, as India began gravitating toward
a U.S.-sponsored quadripartite security alliance in Asia including Japan
and Australia, an arrangement that Beijing perceived as arrayed against it.
The alliance failed to take off due to change of governments in Tokyo and
Canberra, but the damage was done.
Meanwhile, the large corpus of "hawks" in the strategic communities in both
countries, which thrives on the feedstock of the 50-year adversarial
relationship, have not helped matters, either. On the Indian side, they
fancy that India should play a "Tibetan card" against China; they have
eagerly lapped up the "string of pearls" thesis, floated by a minor
ex-Pentagon analyst in her late-twenties, as the basis of their belief that
China is "encircling" India by setting up military outposts in the
surrounding region ; some among them even anticipate a limited border war
as unavoidable. In sum, the momentum that was built up in the normalization
of Sino-Indian relations following the visit of India's then-Prime Minister
A.B. Vajpayee to China in 2003 has been more or less dissipated.
This is despite bilateral trade between China and India already touching
$40 billion, and potential trade and investment remaining far from
exploited; despite the fact that regular high-level political exchanges
have become a feature of the relationship; despite the two countries
embarking on significant confidence-building measures such as military
exercises; and despite peace and tranquility by and large prevailing along
the border. The main lacuna is that there are virtually no people-to-people
contacts between the two countries. The discourses over the relationship,
therefore, have largely ended up as futile volleys of missives between
hardliners within the strategic community of both sides -- some with
establishment backing, but often without -- venting their spleens.
These hardliners remain largely hostage to the past, while the
international community is moving forward in coming to terms with the new
China. But the backlog of past bitterness, suspicions and prejudices are
very substantial, too. A former Indian "hawkish" official credited with
extensive knowledge and hands-on experience in managing Sino-Indian
relations tried to sum up Delhi's policy dilemma in the following way:
India has no alternative but to manage its relations with China, but
without overlooking major differences and even potential flashpoints that
exist. Perceptions count in foreign policy, but Chinese actions count more.
And past Chinese actions have often been very unfriendly, such as helping
Pakistan's rise as a nuclear power. That is to say, despite "friendly
noises," China has a record of acting "contrarily." For instance, China
made friendly noises about India's membership of the United Nations
Security Council, but when it appeared that India's claim was gaining
ground, Beijing changed its tune and launched a diplomatic offensive to
This is only an illustrative example, the former diplomat said, of a series
of unfriendly actions by China, which tell a different story from what the
Chinese profess about "mutual trust" and "good intentions." Having said
that, however, there is no need for Delhi to project rivalry with China,
either. "Even if there are differences, it is better to sort them out."
Again, he acknowledged, "India and China are not in the same league," and
India must first build itself up before pretending that they are.
Therefore, Indian policy has to be cautious, and not confrontational. But
at the same time, India must bear in mind that China is a country with an
"adversarial mentality." There is indeed an "asymmetry" today, and the
Indian priority should be to see that it does not fall back further behind
China. "The talk about closing the gap [with China] is all baloney, we are
nowhere near China. We should eschew illusions. We should first build up
power. Then, many of these problems will be taken care of."
Next page: U.S.-Indian strategic cooperation. . .
It all boils down to "power," and the Bush administration was shrewd enough
to pander to the Indian drive to build up its own. It extensively
cultivated the Indian defence establishment and succeeded in creating a
strong lobby in Delhi, which is sold on the prospect of the Indian military
gaining access to advanced U.S. military technology. But it did not bother
to articulate what ought to constitute "power" in the present-day context
of India's political economy.
The point is, except for a lunatic fringe, no one seriously expects India
to face any threats of external aggression. The main threats to India's
national security arise out of factors such as misgovernance, political
alienation, regional imbalance, religious extremism and poverty, all of
which are exploited by terrorists and militants. The Bush administration
did not have the intellectual acumen or patience to fathom the factors
underlying the chronic instability in the South Asian region. In the most
recent two to three-year period, the Bush administration focused almost
exclusively on the negotiation of the U.S.-India nuclear deal and on
military-to-military cooperation with India.
Obama's approach to the security paradigm will be keenly watched. In a
letter addressed to the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Oct. 23,
Obama laid out his vision for U.S.-India relations going forward by
suggesting that "as a starting point, our common strategic interests call
for redoubling U.S.-Indian military, intelligence, and law enforcement
cooperation." However, while expressing support for the U.S.-India nuclear
deal, Obama also made it clear that he "expects" India to come within the
ambit of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and a ban on fissile
material production. Unlike the Bush administration, he didn't wax eloquent
about what Indians took to be the U.S. acceptance of India's preeminent
status in the South Asian region. Far from articulating any appreciation of
its aspirations for a wider security zone, Obama stressed his agenda of
nuclear non-proliferation in directions that made Delhi feel uncomfortable.
As things stand, Indians are beginning to realize that technology transfer
from the U.S., which they had expected as a positive outcome of the nuclear
deal, is not going to be that easy to obtain. To the contrary, the U.S.
remains as tight-fisted as ever, with the so-called end-user certification,
which the American side insists on, working as a "major stumbling block,"
as a top Indian strategist put it. It seems that, with the containment
strategy towards China also off the U.S. foreign policy agenda for the
foreseeable future, all India is left with in the current scenario is an
option to create tens of billions of dollars worth of business
opportunities for the U.S. nuclear industry in the Indian market within the
framework of the nuclear deal and to try to leverage that as political
influence on Washington's South Asia policies.
Plainly put, Indian strategists are keeping their fingers crossed that
given the crisis in the U.S. economy, any business opportunities that the
Indian side can generate for the U.S. industry will create lobbies on
Capitol Hill, which the Obama administration will be hard-pressed to ignore
while crafting its South Asia policies.
This is a curious turn to the much-touted U.S.-India "strategic
cooperation" and the role of the nuclear deal in the scheme of things.
Unsurprisingly, the pro-U.S. lobby in the Indian strategic community is
resuscitating an oft-heard slogan of the 1990s following the disbandment of
the Soviet Union: "India has no alternatives to the U.S." The government
has already rolled up its sleeves and begun exploring the ways and means of
the nuclear deal generating some quick business for the U.S. nuclear
industry. But it will have to scramble, as its term in office ends in
another six months. Given the scale of public corruption in India, it
doesn't require much ingenuity to figure out that the U.S.-India nuclear
deal is perilously close to degenerating into pork-barrel politics. Some of
the passionate advocates of the nuclear deal in the Indian strategic
community have already lined up lucrative positions as business lobbyists
for the foreign nuclear industry in the Indian market.
* * *
However, the million-dollar question remains whether or not the fascination
with the Indian market will prove to be an overriding consideration in the
Obama administration's South Asia policy. The number one foreign policy
priority for Obama will be the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan's stability.
And the U.S.'s nuclear deal with India, along with the broader U.S.-India
strategic partnership, has been doubtless one of the factors weighing on
the minds of the Pakistani military.
This brings us to the Obama administration's war strategy in Afghanistan.
For Obama, the stakes are enormous. Clearly, the outcome of the war will
have a significant impact on his re-election bid in 2012. A successful
conclusion of the war will be a feather on his cap, while the political
consequences of a defeat or a quagmire can prove to be very damaging. Most
certainly, Obama will want to avoid a repetition of Lyndon Johnson's epic
tragedy of inheriting a war that consumed his presidency and destroyed his
political career, while keeping him from fulfilling his promise of the
Obama's best chance lies in crafting an Afghan war strategy that creates
conditions for initiating an inter-Afghan peace process leading to national
reconciliation and the formation of a broad-based government. Obama must
look into the history books and grasp that Dr. Najibullah all but succeeded
in the pursuit of a national reconciliation policy during the period that
followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Curiously, Hamid Karzai is placed
in a comparable position today.
The reconciliation strategy must go hand in hand with a regional initiative
to seek the cooperation of Russia and Iran. Both these regional powers will
be inclined to cooperate if only the U.S. reaches out to them in a
constructive spirit, and provided the cooperation is within the matrix of a
broader understanding. Also, there must be a sense of proportions about the
al-Qaida problem, without unduly exaggerating its dangerous potential. Some
searching questions also need to be asked: how pivotal is Afghanistan for
the U.S.'s national security interests? How unavoidable was the U.S.
invasion of Afghanistan in 2001? European allies are unlikely to rally
around the Obama administration's call to commit more troops to
Afghanistan. That leaves the burden of the fighting today on the U.S.
In the above scenario, a crucial aspect will be the Obama administration's
measure of success in ensuring Pakistan's cooperation. Much depends on how
Obama chooses to define Pakistan's "legitimate" concerns in any effort to
try and accommodate them so that Pakistan is encouraged to feel and act as
a whole-hearted participant in the war in Afghanistan. Surely, Pakistan has
special interests in Afghanistan and will endeavor to have a friendly
government in Kabul. Pakistan will also insist that its adversaries do not
get to use Afghan soil to mount subversive activities directed against it.
Pakistan is forever on the lookout for removing the ambivalence regarding
the status of the disputed Durand Line.
There is a tendency on the part of some American commentators to explain
away Pakistan's policy towards Afghanistan almost exclusively in terms of
its adversarial relationship with India. This contention lacks basis. We
must remember that Pakistan has had an extremely troubled relationship with
Afghanistan all along its 60-year history. It is worthwhile recollecting
that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto invited the then-Islamist student leader Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar to base himself in Pakistan in the early 1970s and spearhead
anti-Afghanistan activities from Peshawar, long before the Soviet
intervention. Prior to that, the Shah of Iran had mediated between
Afghanistan and Pakistan. In this entire flow of history before the Afghan
civil war began, India did not figure even as an irritant in Pakistan's
policies towards Afghanistan.
The leitmotif of the troubled Afghan-Pakistani relationship, in fact, has
always been the so-called Pashtunistan problem, which meant the unresolved
nationality question dating back to the creation of Pakistan. The Pashtuns
of Afghanistan never accepted the arbitrary decision by the departing
British colonial power to leave vast tracts of the Pashtun heartlands
within the territory of Pakistan. Despite all pressure tactics by Pakistan,
Afghans have not relented. Successive regimes in Kabul over the past
60-year period have remained adamant about the "Pashtunistan problem". Even
the Taliban regime in Kabul, which Pakistan helped militarily to capture
power in Afghanistan, could not do much about moderating or finessing the
deep-rooted Afghan nationalism apropos the issue of the Durand Line.
The solution to the core problem in Afghan-Pakistan relations, therefore,
lies in the formal recognition of the Durand Line by the Afghans. Britain
could perhaps take a hand in attending to the unfinished business of the
partition it left behind when it vacated the subcontinent as the colonial
power in 1947. True, the job is daunting enough that London may not have a
stomach for it today. Or, would the Americans use their vast influence over
the regime in Kabul today to mediate on the Durand Line?
Unsurprisingly, Pakistan will be loathe to admit that this core issue is
bedeviling its ties with Afghanistan, since its official stance is to
pretend that the Durand Line is the recognized boundary between the two
countries and that there is no dispute. But unless and until the visceral
fears in Pakistan about its undefined borders and the unresolved national
question are addressed, and unless there is clarity about its virtually
open, unrecognized border with Afghanistan straddled by tribal communities
with close affinities, Islamabad will have a problem in dealing with that
country as just a sovereign neighboring country entitled to its own form of
government chosen by its people. It must be clearly understood that this
paradigm has nothing to do with India.
Again, it was not because of the imperative to counter India's influence in
Afghanistan that Pakistan -- with able support from Saudi Arabia and the
United States -- created the Taliban in the early 1990s. Pakistan saw the
Taliban as the vehicle through which it could control Afghanistan and even
sub-serve U.S. regional policies in the newly independent states of Central
Asia. Both the U.S. and Saudi Arabia saw the Wahhabi faith of the Taliban
as a useful counter to Shi'ite Iran. "Big Oil" financed the Taliban as the
flag carriers of pipelines evacuating Caspian oil to the world market.
India, on the other hand, had nothing to do with the rise of the Taliban,
becoming active on the Afghan front only when the Taliban regime allowed
the Pakistani intelligence apparatus to open training camps for Kashmiri
militants on territories under their control. The Indian policy shifted
gear only in the second half of the 1990s, when it decided that the Taliban
regime was threatening Indian security and destabilizing the region.
True, since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in Kabul in 2001, Indian
influence in Afghanistan has been steadily on the ascent. Hamid Karzai has
pursued an openly friendly policy toward India, where he grew up and
studied. He enjoys popularity among the Indian elite for his charming ways.
More than anything, Indians appreciate that he never missed an opportunity
to prod India to be proactive in its policies supportive of his government.
The Northern Alliance groups -- which spearheaded the anti-Taliban
resistance -- have also remained well-disposed towards India. More than
anything else, the hostility -- bordering on hatred -- towards Pakistan,
which runs deep and is widespread in Afghan opinion, immensely helped
India. Afghans have always compared India favorably to Pakistan.
In the overall interests of an Afghan settlement, therefore, if anyone were
to say that India should roll back its "influence" inside Afghanistan, it
would not make sense. The fact is, India has consistently supported
Karzai's government. India has also closely worked with the U.S. over the
Afghan problem. There has been no doublespeak on India's part on this
score, and Washington is appreciative of that. Again, India has been a
major donor country for Afghan reconstruction. In fact, among the regional
powers surrounding Afghanistan, there is no country which has been as
staunch a supporter of the "war on terror" as India. Indeed, India is
strongly averse to any premature withdrawal of American troops from
Afghanistan and sees eye-to-eye with the U.S. military's assessment that
the war is not necessarily lost.
That said, Delhi should nonetheless do all it can to address Pakistan's
genuine apprehensions that Indian agencies may use Afghan soil for staging
subversive activities inside Pakistan. Delhi would also do well to keep in
mind Pakistani sensitivities over the Pashtunistan question. Equally, it
must be remembered that Indian agencies operating out of Afghanistan cannot
get away with staging subversive activities against Pakistan for long
without the U.S. -- or NATO -- intelligence getting wind of it. There is no
evidence of that having ever happened. On the contrary, the U.S. continues
to encourage India to become an even more active participant in the "war on
terror." The U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, during his visit to
Delhi in February, even suggested that Delhi could strengthen military
cooperation with the Karzai regime.
Next page: Delhi's growing unease
Of course, India has been watching with growing unease the current
proposals for reaching a political accommodation with "moderate" Taliban.
India feels that there is no such thing as "moderate" Taliban, a position
virtually identical to Russia's. All the same, it is entirely conceivable
that Delhi will eventually come to terms with any broad-based government in
Kabul which includes the Taliban elements, if that is indeed what the
Afghan groups finally decide.
Ultimately, Delhi's best bet will be an Afghanistan free of foreign
influence. Delhi is rooted in the conviction that the Afghans are a
fiercely independent people and they will sooner rather than later resent
foreign, and especially Pakistani, dominance. That is to say, Delhi can
rest assured that it will always have an influential role in Afghanistan so
long as Indian policy remains scrupulously non-interfering, non-intrusive
and non-prescriptive, and continues to focus on people-to-people relations
and mutually beneficial economic and technical cooperation. It's important
to remember that it took only four months for the Mujahideen government --
installed by Pakistan's then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (known at that
time as "Fateh Kabul," or emperor of Kabul) amidst much triumphalism in
April 1992 -- to turn towards New Delhi as a "balancer." By September 1992,
the Afghan government was already sick and tired of Pakistan's domineering
and patronizing attitude, and the then-President Burhanuddin Rabbani
virtually sought out an invitation to visit New Delhi, overflying Pakistan.
In other words, India will always have an assured role to play in any
Afghan settlement. What's more, there is no doubt that India will offer
full cooperation to any government in Kabul that is formed as part of a
settlement. Equally, Delhi will aspire to play a major role as a
participant in the Afghan reconstruction, since there is a consensus in the
policy-making hierarchy in Delhi that a stable Afghanistan is an imperative
need of India's national security. The only area where India may show
hesitancy will be in undertaking any peace-making, peace-keeping or
"peace-enforcing" operations in Afghanistan. The bottom line in the Indian
policy calculus will always be that the Afghans have historically opposed
foreign military presence on their soil. But even here, India may be
willing to compensate by assisting in the creation and build-up of the
Afghan armed forces and state security agencies as part of its overall
technical and economic cooperation in strengthening the Afghan state
The Indian policy towards Afghanistan is in broad harmony with the policies
of other major regional powers such as Russia, China and Iran. At the very
least, there are no serious contradictions. Like these countries, India,
too, harbors a deep concern about the resurgence of the forces of extremism
represented by the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan. Like them, India
also prefers a "neutral" Afghanistan as a factor of regional stability.
All this is perfectly understandable. But what has raised a degree of
disquiet in Delhi is that some influential opinion-makers in the U.S. have
lately begun to propagate the idea that the Kashmir issue must also be
"handled" by the Obama administration as a "legitimate" Pakistani security
concern vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Delhi is assessing whether Obama subscribes
to such an agenda. Indeed, Obama himself has confirmed that he has given
thought to appointing a special envoy to "mediate" on Kashmir. If he indeed
presses ahead with such an appointment, U.S.-India relationship will most
certainly get into a turbulent pocket and might well return to the tensions
of the pre-1998 period. Delhi will hunker down, no matter what it takes, to
rebuff any U.S. -- or third party -- mediation of India-Pakistan
differences over Kashmir.
The talk of U.S. mediation on Kashmir comes at an awkward moment for Delhi.
On the one hand, as the horrific terrorist violence that unfolded in Mumbai
this week testifies, Delhi has reason to be extremely sensitive on the
issue of terrorism. And the widespread public perception in India is that
much of the terrorism that it faces is sponsored -- or aided and abetted --
from Pakistan. On the other hand, Delhi feels vindicated that the current
round of elections to the legislative assembly in the state of Jammu &
Kashmir has witnessed a remarkably high level of public participation. Even
in militancy-stricken areas, the voter turnout has been appreciably high at
well above 50 percent.
Pakistan, for its part, has acted with restraint and allowed the elections
to be held without attempting to disrupt them, as had been the past
practice. If the process of electing a representative government in Jammu &
Kashmir is completed successfully -- the elections are being held in seven
stages spread over several weeks -- there is a way forward in terms of
exploring "out-of-the-box" solutions to the Kashmir problem without
redrawing the present-day borders. Of course, this has to take place within
the framework of a broader India-Pakistan dialogue generating a climate of
trust and confidence.
* * *
In conclusion, what the Obama administration can do is to swiftly
facilitate the commencement of an inter-Afghan dialogue leading to a
coalition government in Kabul and a withdrawal of the foreign forces. The
U.S. ought to seek Russia and Iran's cooperation in stabilizing
Many vested interests have developed in the U.S. security establishment,
which seek a prolongation of the war and a widening of its scope to include
Pakistani territory. That makes Afghanistan a political minefield for
Obama would do well to remember that the U.S. is largely responsible for
destabilizing Pakistan, and both Pakistan's and the region's long-term
stability depends on a quick end to the war in Afghanistan and foreign
occupation. Alongside, the international community must undertake an
effective program of reconstruction in Afghanistan.
On the broader regional plane, the U.S. should promote an even-handed
policy towards Pakistan and India, which does not generate misgivings in
Pakistan about a pro-India "tilt" on the part of the U.S., or breed in the
Indian mind any illusions of grandeur as the pre-eminent Indian Ocean power
between the Persian Gulf and the Malacca Straits.
Equally, the U.S.'s regional policy in South Asia as it stands today is
heavily "militarized," whereas the interests of long-term regional
stability are best served if the emphasis is shifted to economic growth and
development, trade and investment.
Finally, South Asia lacks any regional security architecture such as the
ASEAN or the GCC of its eastern and western neighbors. The U.S. played a
seminal role in promoting the creation of both these regional bodies. A
similar focus in South Asia has become a historical necessity.
M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His
assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
Photo: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, by Agência Brasil (Licensed
under the Creative Commons License Attribution 2.5 Brazil).
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