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President Donald Trump delivers remarks on Americas military involvement in Afghanistan, Arlington, VA, August 21, 2017 (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The India Factor in Trump’s Af-Pak Strategy

Aparna Pande

In the most awaited foreign policy speech of his presidency President Donald J Trump has pushed the strategic partnership with India to another level, that of collaboration with the United States. The question is how will New Delhi respond to Washington’s desire/ demand to play a bigger role in Afghanistan. While India views Afghanistan as part of its immediate neighborhood and sphere of influence, New Delhi has traditionally preferred words to action.

India is today the largest regional donor and fifth largest global donor to Afghanistan with over $3 billion in assistance. India offers 1000 annual scholarships to Afghan students, and has trained over 4000 Afghan military officers. New Delhi has helped construct key infrastructure inside Afghanistan from roads and highways (Zaranj-Delaram) to dams (Salma dam) and the Afghan parliament building. India has also built hospitals at Frarkhor and Kabul and donated wheat to feed schoolchildren in Afghanistan.

In his speech at Fort Myers on Monday August 21, 2017, President Trump laid out the broad strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia including what he expected of both Pakistan and India. While his policy showed some continuity with that of his predecessors, the inclusion of India was the surprise element. American administrations have traditionally been reluctant to involve India in Afghanistan primarily because of how Pakistan would react.

Since Independence in 1947, Pakistan’s foreign policy has centered on its largest neighbor, and the country it perceives as an existential threat, India. Pakistan’s leaders, especially its military-intelligence establishment, have always feared that close ties between India and Afghanistan would result in a pincer movement that would dismember Pakistan. Pakistan’s support of jihadi groups like the Mujahideen during the 1970s and 1980s, the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani network is based on the desire to install a government in Afghanistan that will be pro-Pakistan and anti-India.

Pakistan’s leaders and strategists have also feared closer ties between India and the United States. Soon after 9/11 Pakistan’s fears of American encouragement of an Indian role in Afghanistan were demonstrated in a speech given by then military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. Musharraf justified Pakistan’s support for United States policy towards Afghanistan on the grounds that it was only way that Pakistan could thwart Indian objectives. Musharraf stated that India has “offered all their military facilities to the United States” because New Delhi wanted “Pakistan to be declared a terrorist state” and “damage our Kashmir cause.” Successive Pakistani leaders have made this argument to their people as it has helped them obtain American aid while continuing support to jihadi groups that help Pakistan’s regional objective of seeking parity with India.

Right from the 1950s India has factored in American grand strategy towards South Asia. In earlier years, Washington preferred to nuance its words for fear of how Islamabad (primarily Rawalpindi) may react. Immediately after 9/11 the BJP-led government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee offered aid and assistance to Afghanistan. This was not new for New Delhi as during the 1980s India provided assistance to the Najibullah government.

While the U.S. never openly objected to Indian assistance in Afghanistan, for a long time, the American political and military establishment believed that Pakistan would be more likely to cooperate in Afghanistan if there was limited Indian involvement. In his report of September 2009 then commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal warned that “increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India.”

As ties between New Delhi and Washington grew closer, this American attempt to “balance” short-term goals in Pakistan with long-term goals with respect to India created problems. New Delhi complained that while the United States viewed India as a partner with respect to most of India’s neighbors, and even encouraged an Indian role in South East Asia, Washington was reluctant to openly encourage an Indian role in Afghanistan for fear of Pakistan’s ire.

An open invitation to India to help the American goals in Afghanistan has always been a Pakistani nightmare and President Trump’s speech on Monday night may be the wakeup call Rawalpindi needs to hear.

President Trump referred to India as “a key security and economic partner” and spoke of the “shared objectives for peace and security” in South Asia and also the Indo-Pacific region. While appreciating India’s “important contributions to stability in Afghanistan” the President asked New Delhi to do more in the “area of economic assistance and development.”

In words that will please New Delhi – and Kabul – immensely the President openly admitted what his predecessors have often conceded in private – that the U.S. “can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.”

While acknowledging Pakistan as a “valuable partner” and recognizing that the people of Pakistan have “suffered greatly from terrorism and extremism” President Trump also stated what many in the U.S. Congress and experts have stated for a long time —- that America has “been paying Pakistan billions and billions of dollars at the same time they are housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.”

Trump acknowledged that the “highest concentration” of foreign terrorist organizations are based in the Af-Pak region and that Pakistan provides safe havens to these “agents of chaos, violence, and terror.” In April 2008 President George W Bush referred to the tribal areas of PakistanFATA – as the most dangerous place in the world and in January 2009 referred to Pakistan and Afghanistan as the “central front in our enduring struggle against terrorism and extremism.

Like every US President for the last two decades Trump also spoke of the need to “prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists.” However, he tied this to something he has spoken about earlier during his campaign trails – the fear of an India-Pakistan nuclear war.

Through his speech the President sought to send a message to Islamabad and Rawalpindi that Washington will no longer follow the old policy of turning a blind eye to Pakistan’s policy of using jihad as a lever of its foreign policy and will instead expect Pakistan to deliver on its commitments and promises.

From not seeking an Indian presence in 2001-2002, and often asking the Indians to keep a low profile in Afghanistan, Washington appears to have come full circle —- asking New Delhi to play a deeper role. In this Washington will find a willing audience in Afghanistan. Kabul has always welcomed and encouraged deeper Indian presence, both under President Hamid Karzai and President Ashraf Ghani.

Partly this is an acknowledgement of geopolitical realities: India is the largest neighbor of Afghanistan who has a deep historical and strategic interest in a democratic, stable and peaceful Afghanistan. Partly it is recognizing that the United States does not have the deep pockets it had in earlier years and is therefore looking to its friends and allies to support its policies.

Washington under President Trump has made known its desire for India to play a larger role in regions of the world that matter to US strategic interest: South Asian and the Indo-Pacific. The question now is what is New Delhi willing to do.

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