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Manmohan's US trip

India must aggressively pursue to protect interests and stake in Afghanistan’s future

Manmohan Singh’s visit to the US coincides with Thanksgiving week and the first anniversary of 26/11.  During the Prime Minister’s visit, the debilitating security situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be on the agenda.  It is on this issue that some incredibly silly, wantonly naive advice is being shoved the US President’s way.

Two broad themes on India’s place in the regional security discourse seem to periodically appear, which can be summarized thus.  Firstly,  Pakistan feels threatened by the presence of a larger adversary at its eastern border. The main thorn in Indo-Pak relations is Kashmir. Therefore, solve Kashmir and receive a grateful Pakistan’s full commitment on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Second, Pakistan feels “strategically encircled” by India’s presence in Afghanistan.  An increase in Indian involvement would inflame Pakistan’s apprehensions vis-a-vis India. Therefore, in the interest of Pakistan’s sensitivities, an expansion of Indian involvement in Afghanistan must not be encouraged (or must at least be brushed aside).

Both these themes do an excellent job in confusing symptom (the “Kashmir” issue, and “strategic depth”) with root cause (Pakistan’s pathological neuralgia with India).  It is another issue of course that those advocating the “resolve Kashmir” approach haven’t ever come close to articulating how this feat is to be accomplished by Washington.

It is no secret that there is disconnect between the UPA and the Obama administration on the way forward in Afghanistan.  There are two aspects to this disconnect — one, th UPA administration has been blind to US’s plans in the region (and consequences to India’s interests), and two, the Obama Administration has been unable to present a coherent, consistent vision for Afghanistan, mired as it is with internal squabbling.

But Obama, who ran on a canvas promising to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is under pressure to act, if only to placate his fellow Democrats and voters.  The Obama administration sees greater regional involvement as a solution that would allow for a phased US withdrawal.   Hence Richard Holbrooke’s  recent diplomatic sojourns to China and Russia.

The role that India will play in this “regional approach” will perhaps become more apparent after the Prime Minister’s visit to Washington. Rightly, as the preeminent power in the region, India’s involvement is not only “beneficial”, but imperative.

But the status of “regional power” is not achieved through birth-right.  It must be  earned, and if India believes itself to be the preeminent regional power, it must start acting like one. Unquestionably, this involves taking tough decisions not only on what India would “prefer to do” in Afghanistan, but what it must do to safeguard its interests.

Thus far, India has stayed away from overt involvement in shaping the politics in Afghanistan, choosing instead engage in the (noble) pursuits of building schools and roads and training the Afghan police force.  “Soft power”, Shashi Tharoor calls it.  But soft power is credible only as long as someone else is willing and able to do the dirty yard work.

What if that “someone else” leaves? Who will step in?

A power vacuum in Afghanistan with a weak, de-legitimized government in Kabul constantly being undermined by a reinforced and invigorated Taliban and affiliated networks presents a scenario for India where its overall influence in the country will diminish, relative to that of China and Pakistan.

Economic investments in Afghanistan (totaling over $1 billion), development of ties with the country’s civilian polity and strategic importance of Afghanistan to an energy-starved nation, make such a scenario unacceptable to India.

There is simply too much at stake for India not to be meaningfully involved in a regional approach to the Afghanistan problem.  Indeed, India’s contribution to such a regional solution must span across all realms, including security/law enforcement, political reconciliation and delivery of social services.  In this regard, offering a larger Indian contingent to train Afghanistan’s security forces, can be a small, but important first step.

US administrations will always have India doubters, just as they will their  share of Indophiles.  India’s goal within the construct of the “regional approach”  must be to aggressively defend its interests in the country, while playing a meaningful role in addressing the current crisis and defining the future of Afghanistan.

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