President Obama’s announcement of far larger and more rapid withdrawals of U.S. forces from Afghanistan than many had expected affects Indian security interests and the U.S.-India relationship in significant ways. While it is unfair to characterize the decision as a rush to the exits, it is clear that a deliberate pace is being set.
Beyond the immediate numbers and timetables involved, the speech’s most memorable line – “America, it’s time to focus on nation building here at home” – signals a new era in South Asia’s geopolitics. U.S. involvement in regional security affairs has oscillated between deep engagement (as in the 1950s, 1980s and the post-9/11 decade) and relative indifference (the 1960s-1970s, and the 1990s). Mr. Obama’s remarks confirm that the pendulum has now begun its swing toward the latter position.
The address will set in motion a train of momentous events for all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. And it is noteworthy that Mr. Obama’s decision was driven more by the exigencies of domestic politics than by a careful assessment of U.S. security objectives in South and Central Asia. As the Washington Post comments , Obama “failed to offer a convincing military or strategic rationale for the troop withdrawals.” The debate inside the administration was reportedly intense but brief, and White House political operatives have not even tried to disguise the fact that the President ignored his top Pentagon advisers.
Parallel to the troop drawdown, President Obama sounded the end to U.S. nation-building efforts in Afghanistan, stating that “we won’t try to make [it] a perfect place.” He underscored Washington’s burgeoning disenchantment with Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul by once again prodding it to “step up its ability to protect its people, and move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.” Both objectives, however, will prove impossible in the absence of strong U.S. support. A new report by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee offers a very bleak assessment of Afghanistan’s economic viability in a post-withdrawal era. Yet a day after Obama’s remarks, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave notice that the “civilian surge” – which dispatched a thousand U.S. officials to work on governance and development projects in Afghanistan – has likewise peaked.
Karzai’s antics have played a role in this fundamental shift in Washington, with one analyst concluding that “the United States has now clearly washed its hands of the Karzai government.” Tellingly, there was nary a word of praise in Mr. Obama’s remarks for the Afghan president, and one wonders how committed Washington will be to his regime’s survival in any political settlement with the Taliban.
Of course, this is the same government in which New Delhi has invested so much over the last decade. Only six weeks ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh traveled to Kabul with the aim of broadening India’s engagement in Afghanistan . He unveiled a significant expansion of Indian aid, with a further commitment of $500 million over the next few years. He and Karzai also issued a joint declaration that the two countries intended to move towards a strategic partnership. According to one analyst , Singh’s purpose was to demonstrate that, unlike Washington, New Delhi has no “exit strategy” in Afghanistan.
The diplomatic process leading to a possible political settlement of the Afghan conflict is only just beginning. But as it unfolds, it is likely that key differences will emerge between the United States and India. Looking towards the exits, Washington may not be too picky over the settlement’s exact details, while New Delhi will be all too focused on how the strategic terrain in its neighborhood is shifting.
Speaking of political settlements, Obama assured all that “the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance.” But he was virtually silent on the principles he would pursue in the diplomatic endgame. What would constitute such a peace and how the United States would seek to effect it were items left unmentioned. Nor did Obama address how the Taliban and its Pakistani benefactor could be persuaded to support such an outcome when he has so plainly telegraphed America’s disengagement from Afghanistan.
The coming period will witness an intensified regional scramble for influence in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. India has strong strategic interests in ensuring that any government in Kabul is strong enough to be a bulwark against Pakistan as well as a gateway to trade and energy links in Central Asia. Both goals would be undermined if a Taliban-dominated regime were to come to power. Yet India’s own capacity to shape the course of events is quite limited in a country with which it shares no borders. For this reason, India will seek to move closer to Iran, whose interests in Afghanistan are roughly congruent.
Indeed, this process has already started. A year ago, Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao (now slated as India’s new ambassador in Washington) highlighted the “unique” civilizational ties and “the instinctive feeling of goodwill” between India and Iran. She spoke of how links with Tehran are a “fundamental component” of New Delhi’s foreign policy and how there has been a recent “convergence of views” on important policy issues. Regarding bilateral cooperation in Afghanistan, she argued that India and Iran “are of the region and will belong here forever, even as outsiders [read the Americans] come and go.” A senior Indian official described the outreach to Iran as a policy “recalibration” necessitated by the “scenario unfolding in Afghanistan and India’s determination to secure its national interests.”
Earlier this year, India’s national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon, visited Tehran seeking to shore up strategic ties. In early June, the deputy secretary of Iran’s National Security Council was in New Delhi to continue the talks. New Delhi now has even less incentive to go along with U.S. economic sanctions directed against Tehran, and both countries may go so far as to revive their cooperation during the 1990s that provided critical support to the non-Pashtun militias battling the Taliban regime. The Americans will surely grumble about the cozying up with Iran, but the geopolitical logic of the Obama withdrawal leaves New Delhi little choice.
As the United States progressively takes leave of Afghanistan, its dependence on the (epically dysfunctional) security relationship with Pakistan that the 9/11 attacks brought about will correspondingly lessen. The impact of this development on India is variable. The drawdown in U.S. forces will decrease the logistical requirement to run critical supply lines through Pakistani territory. And as the commando assault on Osama Bin Laden and the marked ramp-up in drone strikes testify, Washington is increasingly willing to do without Pakistani cooperation and conduct military operations on its own.
As the need for Islamabad’s collaboration diminishes, Washington will begin to pull back on the significant military assistance – nearly $20 billion so far – that has caused so much consternation in New Delhi. The Bush administration’s “de-hyphenation” policy – one that pursued relations with India and Pakistan independent of the other – will also re-emerge. Seeing Pakistani cooperation on Afghanistan as a function of addressing its acute security anxieties, the Obama administration put the policy on hiatus and started making noises about the Kashmir issue and discouraging New Delhi from too deep an involvement in Afghanistan . With Washington’s solicitude vis-à-vis Islamabad’s sensitivities coming to an end, the U.S.-Indian security partnership will more and more run on its own dynamics.
On the other side of the ledger, however, the Pakistani military establishment could try to offset the loss of U.S. support by entering into an even tighter security alliance with China. This prospect, which would exacerbate India’s strategic concerns, cannot be ruled out, though Beijing so far has shown a reluctance to be encumbered by Pakistan’s deep internal problems . The rather bizarre trip Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani undertook to Beijing in late May is a case in point . Despite Gilani’s profession that Pakistan and China “are like two countries and one nation,” Beijing appeared discomforted when Islamabad put out the word that the Chinese navy was welcome to take up residence in Gwadar, a strategic port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf.
A more worrisome possibility is that U.S. strategic disassociation with Islamabad will also be expressed in a sharp reduction of economic assistance, leading to even greater volatility in Pakistan. In that event, India would find that Pakistan as a failed state is much more of a security headache than it ever was at the peak of its national power.
As the United States markedly reduces its presence in regional security affairs, some hard choices await New Delhi policymakers.