Monday, November 15, 2010

Obama supports India’s “Diplomacy by Default” But Will Indo-US Unity Help in Afghanistan?

Obama supports India’s “Diplomacy by Default”
But Will Indo-US Unity Help in Afghanistan?
Saeed Naqvi

In search of saliency in the Obama visit, pundits have missed out on “Indo-US” co-operation in Afghanistan, a major shift since the narrative so far has been about US-Pak collaboration in the Af-Pak theatre.

The joint Indo-US statement issued at the end of President Obama’s visit reads:

“The two sides committed to intensify consultation, co-operation and co-ordination to promote a stable, democratic, prosperous and independent Afghanistan. President Obama appreciated India’s enormous cooperation to Afghanistan’s development and welcomed enhanced Indian assistance that will help Afghans achieve self-sufficiency. In addition to their own independent assistance programs in Afghanistan, the two sides resolved to pursue joint development projects with the Afghan government in capacity building, agriculture and women’s empowerment.”

The paragraph shuts up a noisy but uninformed lobby in India seeking a more muscular, “macho” (for which read “lethal”) presence in Afghanistan to check Pakistan’s military engagement with the US for controlling influence in Afghanistan.

Additionally, it is a rap on the knuckles for the US military policy makers in Afghanistan who are on record that India’s “political and economic influence” and “significant financial assistance” are impeding Afghan war efforts.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, former US Force Commander said in June “Increasing Indian influence is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani counter measures in Afghanistan or India”.

The “countermeasures” cited by McChrystal’s colleagues were, for instance, attacks on Indian Embassy in Kabul. The implications of the McChrystal thesis were far reaching: that India should turn its back on Afghanistan so that the US-Pak combine can clear up Afghanistan of Al Qaeda and Taleban.

Even if one sets aside the India angle, the McChrystal thesis was a recipe for the US to sink deeper into the Afghan quicksand.

A leak from McChrystal’s note book insulting to Obama’s team resulted in him being sacked. He now teaches a course at Yale.

His successor in Kabul, Gen. David Petraeus, has so far not suggested that India quit Afghanistan to facilitate the US war effort. But he too has been talking about Pakistani fears of India’s “Cold Start” doctrine. “Cold Start” is a fancy term for Rapid Deployment. The term was apparently used in a seminar but has never been a doctrine locked up in some archive.

The Joint statement, carrying Obama’s imprimatur, shuts out this US military inspired thinking which has traditionally had a considerable resonance with the Pak Army ever since the US-Pak military pact was signed in the 50s and sustained through the Cold War. The joint statement almost scuttles a longstanding systematic synchronization.

Appreciation and endorsement of “India’s enormous co-operation to Afghanistan’s development” is a major shift. Obama justifies India’s concentration on construction of infrastructure, hospitals, schools and facilitating Afghan students in Indian schools, colleges and universities. Also, New Delhi, barely 90 minutes away from Kabul, has become a favoured destination for Afghan patients.

Stereotype diplomacy in Afghanistan as being an adjunct to military force has been made to stand on its head by almost Gandhian, non-lethal “good works”, done by New Delhi. Exasperated by bombings, searches, humiliations not unknown to Pakistan with its on and off participation in the war effort, Afghans have found Indians the most calming presence in difficult times. A common exclamation in Mazar-e-Sharif as well as Kabul it: “They flood us with arms; India helps us rebuild.”

This “diplomacy by default” as Indian low key presence in Afghanistan has been described by a think tank, has not only worked but has been applauded by Obama.

The further US commitment, “in addition to India’s own assistance program” is to jointly take up “development projects with the Afghan government in capacity building, agriculture and women’s empowerment”.

This Indo-US combined effort with the Afghan government serves a twin purpose. It creates and expands space towards an eventual political settlement in Afghanistan. At the same time Pakistani fears that India may be sharpening the pincer on it from the West, is taken care of by the US keeping an eye on the “nasty works” India may be upto. But there is a catch: New Delhi’s popularity in Afghanistan has been because of the widespread perception of its independence. Going hand in hand with the US may spoil it.

The joint commitment to promote a “stable, democratic, prosperous and independent Afghanistan” obviates any hegemonic role in Afghanistan by neighbours or, indeed, the US.

Two broad themes, in the works for months, were discernable in the interactions: growing US frustration at being stuck with a “nuclear”, increasingly unstable but logistically indispensable Pakistan which nurses “terror camps”. Without their elimination, Afghanistan cannot be stabilized.

The other theme was China, its domineering presence on the world stage. China’s rise was not seen in confrontational terms, but rather as a challenge to keep it in a cooperative global concert. Witness Manmohan Singh deflecting attacks on the currency issue at the Seoul, G20.

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