Could India Help the U.S. Stabilize Afghanistan?

On Friday, as part of his administration’s “hyperactive” Asia agenda, President Barack Obama began his nine-day trip to the Pacific Rim. After participating in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Honolulu, Obama will then head to Asia to meet with numerous world leaders at the East Asia Summit, including Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on November 18.

The pair is expected to evaluate the progress of the 2010 U.S.-India Strategic Dialogue in areas of trade and security. Mutual concerns over Pakistan and Afghanistan are bound to take center stage. Given Obama’s portentous schedule for withdrawal – starting with 10,000 troops by the end of 2011, 23,000 by summer 2012, and the remainder by 2014 – and the ominous security vacuum it might generate, this conversation could not have come at a more critical time. Clearly the opportunity for deft and preventative foreign policy is shrinking. 

American policy makers must weigh India’s potential role in ameliorating post-occupation insecurity as well as the increasing reach of other powers such as China and Russia in the region. An overarching challenge of Obama’s is to enhance America’s regional partnerships and competitive economic policy without alienating an increasingly downtrodden Pakistan.

Obama should focus on developing a strategic comprehension of regional interests and power imbalances. Pakistan, fearful of geostrategic encirclement, has consistently warned its Indian rival against engagement in Afghanistan. On its end, India accuses Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, of supporting certain terrorist groups in attacks against India, including the assaults on the Indian embassy in Kabul. As with India, Afghanistan also suspects Pakistan of endorsing regional insecurity. Afghan president Hamid Karzai views India as a potential counterweight against Pakistan’s continued support for insurgents.

As of now, though it serves as a significant donor state behind Afghanistan’s reconstruction, India has strategically decided against sending any combat soldiers into the war. However, with its eye on 2014, India has had to reconsider its level of engagement. In October, India and Afghanistan signed a bilateral security partnership in which India committed to training Afghan army units and fitting the troops with light arms. Despite promises by Afghan and Indian leaders that the pact was meant to ensure peace in Afghanistan, Pakistan is highly suspicious that the partnership harbors more sinister geostrategic intentions.

While the United States does not have control over India’s involvement in Afghanistan, or Pakistan’s reaction for that matter, it must handle the transition prudently. This period reflects not just the withdrawal of American troops, but also a mass shifting of power balances and alliances in a nuclearized region.

Obama’s foreign policy must address such tectonics while also incorporating the increased involvement in Pakistan of other great powers and U.S. competitors like Russia and China. Earlier this week, after meeting with Gilani, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Pakistan a “key Russian partner in South Asia and the Islamic World.” He also confirmed a $500 million Russian investment in an electric transmission line connecting Pakistan to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.

China is also motivated in regional involvement through its “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean. By befriending India’s neighbors and establishing naval supremacy in the region, China hopes to counter a rising India, its contemporary Asian rival, and safeguard its shipping lanes as its thirst for foreign fuel grows.

Photo Credit: U.S. Embassy