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US, India and the new lack of strategic trust

During US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to New Delhi, the old stock phrases to characterise the Indo-US relationship — “strategic partnership” or “a defining relationship” — have been spoken of in a muted tone. The reality is that these are echoes of the past, today the relationship is on a somewhat arid plateau. It is unable to meet the expectations placed on it and the reason for that is the increasing lack of what can be called “strategic trust” between New Delhi and Washington.


Mighty talk: In Kerry’s remarks on the Indo-US strategic partnership he lectured India on the need for cooperation on problems like climate change, deepening Indo-Pak  bilateral trade and even women’s rights

This trust has evaporated as the US, the obviously bigger player in the relationship, is retrenching itself in the wake of the economic crisis, and its retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan. When the going was good, there was talk of Indo-US cooperation not only in Afghanistan, but central Asia as well. Today, the US appears to be cutting a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan, using Pakistan as the facilitator, and in east Asia, it seems to be working towards deepening its ties with China. 

This is bad news for India which had participated whole-heartedly in the American-led project that sought to transform Afghanistan from a medieval society that it had been forced to become, to a modern state. Kerry has emphasised that the US still stands by its red lines —that the Taliban will break all links with the Al Qaeda, that it will renounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution’s protection for women and minorities — as part of the reconciliation process that the US has initiated in the region.

But this seems to be more of play to galleries in India than the actual American position which is to offer the Taliban a power sharing deal in Kabul and to withdraw from Afghanistan with the least fuss. This is unacceptable to New Delhi because there is no indication that the Taliban leopard has changed its spots. The outfit has been hostile to India from the outset and remains so.

The second cause for Indian worry is the return of Pakistan as America’s strategic “friend” in relation to Afghanistan. The number of meetings that have taken place between American officials and Pakistan Army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kayani are an indicator of the new twist to the Pakistan-American relationship. American officials say that the Pakistani turnaround is because Islamabad has been finally convinced to play a positive role in the Afghan affair. That would clearly be a triumph of hope over experience and you can be sure that it will compromise Indian interests.

There should be no doubts that Islamabad’s aim is to roll back what it perceives are Indian gains in Afghanistan. If Pakistan’s aim were merely to ensure that it had a friendly regime in Afghanistan, one that would not challenge it along the Durand Line, it would be one thing. But there is every indication that Pakistan wants a regime which will be subservient to its interests in relation to India and Central Asia.

In these circumstances, India needs to look at its options very carefully. Geography has given Pakistan a huge advantage in the Afghan endgame and American support will help them even more. India must not only protest the American actions, but it must take the lead in supporting Afghanistan’s legitimate government with whom we have a strategic partnership agreement. It is in our interest to ensure that the Afghanistan remains peaceful and stable and does not become a sanctuary for terrorist groups who are targeting India. To this end we should link up with like minded countries — mainly the Central Asian Republics, Iran and Russia and ensure that any negotiations that take place with the Taliban, should be undertaken from a position of strength, not abject surrender, and that they should be led by the government in Kabul. Such a posture does not come cheap. India must ensure that the ANSF are armed and equipped to tackle the Taliban. The US, for its part, has provided the ANSF with just basic weapons, and the Afghan forces are being given the cold turkey when it comes to the use of air power or artillery which are managed by the withdrawing coalition forces.

In his remarks on the Indo-US strategic partnership on Sunday night, Kerry lectured India on the need for cooperation on common problems like climate change, deepening India and Pakistan bilateral trade and even women’s rights. But he waffled on the key issues that divide us — the increasing pressure from the US legislators and business groups for Washington to press India on opening up its economy, Pakistan’s increasing centrality to US calculations on Afghanistan, and the entente with China. Of course, a public event like that was not an occasion to air the differences between India and the US, but we should also be clear, that the remarks should not be used to paper over the real differences that have emerged between the two putative strategic allies.  

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi 

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