Afghan Divergence

Everyone in New Delhi knew that the first strategic dialogue between India and the US under Secretary of State John Kerry was going to be a testy affair. The abortive attempt to hold talks between the US and the Afghan Taliban in Doha, just days before Kerry’s arrival, only highlighted what everyone knew was a widening gap between India and the US on Afghanistan.

Indian senior officials have been signaling to the strategic community and the media for the past several months that New Delhi and Washington might soon “go their own ways” when it came to the Northwest Frontier and all that. This didn’t spell the end of the Indo-US relationship, but it would knock down one of the pillars.

The way to understand the difference is to look at how India and Pakistan differ on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Pakistan, which means its military since its civilian government has no control over its Afghan policy, wants the US to leave in a manner that allows Islamabad to negotiate a settlement with the reigning Hamid Karzai government that makes the Afghan Taliban part of the Kabul power structure. They are helping arrange for talks between the Taliban and the US, hope that they will come to a power-sharing deal, and then watch Washington push this deal on Karzai.

The US is interested in such a deal because they fear that without it there will be chaos in Afghanistan and this would allow Al Qaeda to potentially make a comeback. Pakistan wants this because they feel, over time, any Karzai-Taliban duumvirate would be short-lived and eventually lead to a Taliban regime of some sort in Kabul.

India has long supported the US military presence in Afghanistan and is very unhappy that the US is withdrawing. Once it concluded that the Obama administration would not only cut and run, but that it would seek to cover its retreat with a settlement with the Taliban, New Delhi has switched to the view that it would be best that the US get out of Afghanistan as fast as possible.

The rationale for this new Indian stance is that a fast US withdrawal would ensure that a deal with the Taliban would not be possible, given a short timeframe. The result would be a continuation of the present civil war, but one which could potentially drag on for many years with neither Kabul nor the Taliban winning. With any luck, the lack of a Taliban settlement would force the US and other countries to join India in giving the Kabul regime a few billion dollars a year – enough to keep the Afghan National Army fighting and the Taliban at bay.

How would this help India? It would ensure Afghanistan does not become a terrorist haven as it was in the 1980s when the Taliban regime allowed Pakistani-backed militant groups to train, recruit, raise funds through drug sales and so on to keep the insurgency in Kashmir burning. It would also bog Pakistan down in a forever war in Afghanistan, forcing Islamabad to keep deploying tens of thousands of its troops on the Afghan border and ensure that the relative quiet that presently exists along the Line of Control continues for at least five or more years.

This would be expensive in terms of blood for the Afghans. The US would be nervous. But it would be a real mess for Pakistan. The starting point of all this: get the US troops out of Afghanistan and otherwise ensure that any talks with the Taliban fail.

William Darymple has written a paper for the Brookings Institute claiming that Afghanistan is now a proxy for Indo-Pakistan rivalry. This would be true if India actually had anything close to the ability to throw resources into Afghanistan the way Pakistan can. But New Delhi doesn’t.

Perhaps it would be better to say that the Afghans are waging a civil war in which one side is backed by Pakistan and the other side is backed by the West, with India trying to keep the West from giving up the fight.

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