A shared vision

As Nato forces move out, Washington has signalled that it would like India to step up its role as a provider of regional security.

The Tokyo Conference on Afghanistan ended by adopting a declaration that echoed Indian concerns when it adopted a declaration recognising that “the main threat to Afghanistan’s security and stability comes from terrorism and that this threat also endangers regional and international peace and security.”

The donor countries made it clear that they are determined “never to allow Afghanistan to become a sanctuary for international terrorism again.”

Just a few days back underscoring its role as Afghanistan’s main economic partner, India hosted the Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan where it called upon the private sector in the regional states to invest in Afghanistan to crate a virtuous cycle of healthy economic competition in Afghanistan. With the Indian private sector investing more than $10 billion in Afghanistan, India has huge stakes in Afghanistan’s economic success. New Delhi is worried about the security vacuum after the military drawdown by the Nato forces that is to begin later this year and is seeking to retain some influence in the post-2014 strategic landscape in Afghanistan.

India’s centrality to Afghanistan’s future was underscored by the Taliban’s statement after the US secretary of defence, Leon Panetta’s visit to India last month which sought to drive a wedge between New Delhi and Washington by suggesting that India has given a negative answer to Panetta’s wish for greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan. After years of targeting Indian interests in Afghanistan and beyond, the Taliban seemed to have suddenly recognised that India was indeed a significant country in the region and signalled New Delhi not to think of increasing its profile in the country post 2014 by underscoring that it would be ‘totally illogical’ for Indian policy makers to ‘plunge their nation into a calamity just for the American pleasure.’

This was immediately refuted by the US Department of State which underscored India’s important role in regional security, including the transition in Afghanistan. The US is now backing a more robust Indian involvement in Afghanistan signalling a long-term commitment to Afghanistan’s future. As part of the third US-India strategic dialogue last month, India and the US announced regular trilateral consultations with Afghanistan.
There has been a broader maturing of the US-India defence ties and Afghanistan will clearly be a beneficiary of this trend. The US has asked India to place liaison officers in the US Pacific and central commands which bodes well not only for the future of US-India ties but for the larger regional security priorities of the two states.

Appreciating efforts

The US, in recent months, has been very vocal in its appreciation of Indian efforts in Afghanistan which include more than $2 billion aid for reconstruction and development, support for the New Silk Road Initiative and training of Afghan security forces. India has shied away from taking a visible role in bolstering Afghan security except for training a limited number of Afghan security forces. With American backing, India has now agreed to increase the number of Afghan military personnel being trained in its military institutions.
This is a reversal of America’s past reluctance to accept a major Indian role in the training of Afghan forces for fear of offending Pakistani sensitivities.

As Nato forces move out, Washington would like India to step up its role as a provider of regional security. India too has signalled its long-term commitment to stability in Afghanistan by signing the strategic partnership agreement with Kabul last year. There was always a convergence between Washington and New Delhi in so far as their shared vision of a stable and prosperous Afghanistan was concerned. The differences were in the instrumentalities to reach that end state with the US viewing Pakistan as essential to achieving success in Afghanistan and India remaining suspicious of Pakistan’s intentions.
As Washington has grown disenchanted with Pakistani role in Afghanistan, its appreciation for India’s understanding of regional nuances has also increased. There is clear recognition now that success in Afghanistan requires elimination of safe havens and infrastructure for terrorism and violent extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

What is even more striking is Washington’s recognition that if India is to play an important role in Afghanistan, it needs Iran’s support. Robert Blake, assistant secretary in the US Department of State, has acknowledged 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.”

Though India’s willingness to shoulder more responsibilities in managing Afghanistan post 2014 will certainly be a strong riposte to those who have started doubting if New Delhi can ever be a credible partner of Washington, the present government in New Delhi remains distracted and rudderless. Facing multiple problems on the domestic political and economic front, it is not at all clear if it has the will and the ability to consolidate the historic opportunities presented by the new turn in Washington. The evolving ground realities in Afghanistan present India with an opportunity to underline its commitment not only to regional stability but also to a robust partnership with the US. Unless India steps up its role in Afghanistan, it will lose credibility not only with the US but also with the ordinary Afghans who view India very favourably.

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