The interplay of two conflicting dynamics in U.S.-India relations – growing strategic cooperation in East Asia and unfolding differences overAfghanistan– will be a key factor to watch for in 2012.
The Obama administration of late has trumpeted a strategic “pivot” toward Asia that is geared toward sustaining U.S. regional leadership amid China’s ascendance. This shift was a central theme in the president’s trip to East Asia last month, when it received a warm welcome by almost all of the region’s capitals. The idea is that disengagement from debilitating military conflicts in the Greater Middle East (Iraq and Afghanistan) will enable Washington to focus urgently-needed policy attention on a part of the world that will be the center stage of the 21st century. Thomas E. Donilon, President Obama’s national security advisor, contends that “by elevating this dynamic region to one of our top strategic priorities, Obama is showing his determination not to let our ship of state be pushed off course by prevailing crises.”
But translating this strategic shift from the drawing board to the real world may prove difficult, particularly as it relates to India. An emphasis on shoring up the U.S. role in an evolving Asia will necessarily entail a deepening of relations between Washington and New Delhi. But events over the last few months offer mixed signals on this front. Geopolitical cooperation in East Asia is indeed on the upswing. Yet America’s quickening withdrawal from Afghanistan also will increase bilateral frictions, thus pushing relations in the opposite direction.
With domestic politics largely driving U.S. strategy on Afghanistan, key differences are bound to emerge between the United States and India regarding the endgame. Looking toward the exits, Washington will not be overly concerned with the exact details of a political solution with the Taliban, while New Delhi will be all too focused on how the strategic terrain in its neighborhood is shifting to its detriment. This gap in interests explains why, according to one informed analysis, “few tears are being shed in the top levels of the Indian establishment over the state of ties with the US.”
India has strong security interests in ensuring that any government in Kabul is capable 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 Islamabad achieved a central role in shaping a political settlement or if a Taliban-dominated regime were to come to power.
Yet over the last several months, Washington has granted Pakistan a principal role in the Afghan negotiations. In an effort to repair the strains caused by the raid on Abbottabad, Donilon met with Pakistan’s army chief, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, in Abu Dhabi in early October, to begin to flesh out a deal: Islamabad would have a seat at the table where Afghanistan’s future is decided in exchange for delivering the Taliban and the Haqqani network to the talks. Two weeks later, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, together with newly-appointed CIA director David Petraeus and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, arrived in Islamabad to finalize the bargain.
Negotiations with the Taliban have also reached a critical stage. According to reports, Washington did indeed reach a preliminary accord with the Taliban last month that U.S. officials hoped to unveil at the December 5th international conference on Afghanistan in Bonn until Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, torpedoed it at the last minute. Contacts with the Taliban are expected to restart early in the new year, and Obama administration officials may hope to announce a breakthrough at the May 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.
There is no love lost between the Obama administration and the Karzai government that New Delhi has invested so much in over the past decade. Given the focus of U.S. diplomacy, one wonders how committed Washington will be to the current regime’s survival or the protection of Indian equities in an accommodation with the Taliban. The security situation also is likely to deteriorate over the coming year as the military withdrawals that President Obama announced last summer take hold and as remaining U.S. forces shift from direct combat operations to a back-stop role. A newly-minted National Intelligence Estimate reportedly is filled with pessimism about Afghanistan’s prospects.
Mr. Obama has promised to help Afghanistan “move from an economy shaped by war to one that can sustain a lasting peace.” Yet new reports by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund underscore just how formidable, even impossible, challenge that will be. And a recent report by Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffers concluded that U.S. nation-building efforts have largely failed and warned that with Afghanistan so reliant upon foreign military and development spending it could slide into an economic depression as this funding decreases.
The fallout from the Salala incident last month appears to be a transformation of U.S.-Pakistan relations, from the past decade’s broad if epically dysfunctional security partnership to a more circumscribed, largely transactional arrangement. The upshot for New Delhi is variable. Islamabad will be even more stinting in deploying its influence with the Taliban and other militant groups to benefit U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, while Washington will become less concerned about Pakistani sensitivities there. But the much greater restrictions on the preferred U.S. strategy of drone warfare against militant targets in Pakistan’s tribal areas, as well as higher transit fees on U.S. military supplies moving through Pakistan, will further dampen the Obama administration’s fortitude in Afghanistan. This is all the more as the White House enters a bruising re-election campaign in which the president is keen to demonstrate his focus on domestic policy challenges.
The interplay of two conflicting dynamics in U.S.-India relations – growing strategic cooperation in East Asia and unfolding differences over Afghanistan – will be a key factor to watch for in 2012.