India has the kind of soft power among Afghans that the U.S. can only dream of. Working together, New Delhi and Washington could still save Afghanistan.
With two important diplomatic victories last month, the Obama administration has laid the groundwork for the final chapters of the Afghan war. With a secret overnight flight to Kabul on May 1, U.S. President Barack Obama sealed an Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement (ESPA) with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, setting the terms for the United States to retain a robust counterterrorism force to combat the remnants of al-Qaeda and provide a modest security blanket for the Afghan government beyond 2014. Weeks later, at the NATO summit in Chicago, Obama rallied war-fatigued European allies to endorse his framework for an orderly transfer of power to the Afghan government and secure long term pledges of aid.
These diplomatic successes were crucial components of the administration’s withdrawal strategy, but they offer little immediate relief to the war fighter in Afghanistan struggling to subdue a persistent insurgency. Despite some welcome news on the reduction of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, Washington’s leverage over the Taliban – which pulled out of peace talks months ago – is in terminal decline. The shocking admission by the chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees last month that the Taliban is stronger today than it was before the U.S. “surge” of forces in 2009 is a reminder that tactical victories can be swallowed whole by an unsound strategy. And the administration can’t seem to shake lingering doubts about the survivability of the Afghan government after the U.S. withdrawal. Should the Obama administration be crafting a Plan B?
Plan A, of course, was Pakistan. From the outset of the Afghan invasion, the United States relied on Islamabad to provide critical intelligence and logistical support. Unfortunately, so did the Taliban. Pakistan’s widely-recognized “double game” was again highlighted in the Pentagon’s most recent six month progress report, which concluded a decade on, “the Taliban-led insurgency and its al-Qaeda affiliates still operate with impunity from sanctuaries in Pakistan.” Once seen as critical to a peaceful solution in Afghanistan, few doubt Pakistan is now a tremendous obstacle.
Yet with flagging political support for the war and a receding footprint in the region, the U.S. has few options but to cultivate regional partnerships. China is concerned with access to Afghanistan’s natural resources, and little else. U.S. offers of closer collaboration in Afghanistan have been repeatedly rebuffed by Beijing. Russia is an equally problematic partner. While Moscow shares Washington’s concerns over militant Islamists and provides the coalition air and rail routes into Afghanistan, it has oscillated between fiercely opposing a long term U.S. military presence in the country and warning Washington about the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal. Iran, for its part, was once a staunch opponent of the Taliban, but reversed roles after the U.S. invasion, providing arms to the militant group and inciting anti-American sentiment across Afghanistan.
That leaves India. Since 2001, Washington and New Delhi have enjoyed a fundamental convergence of interests in Afghanistan; namely, combating Islamist extremism and supporting democratic governance in Kabul. India vocally welcomed the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban and was the first to warn against any precipitous withdrawal. Its proven track record of opposing the Taliban predates the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, and in the last decade New Delhi has given nearly two billion dollars in aid to the fledgling democracy. More importantly, India draws from a deep well of “soft power” in Afghanistan. It regularly polls among the countries most popular with Afghans, and last year reached an accord with Kabul to train Afghan army and police officers. India built the Afghan parliament building and runs the biggest children’s hospital in the country’s capital.
Photo Credit: High Commission of India, Malaysia