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.
Of course, Indo-U.S. cooperation in Afghanistan isn’t a novel idea. New Delhi and Washington already have joint initiatives in place on capacity building, women’s empowerment, and agriculture. Afghanistan is a frequent topic at the panoply of bilateral dialogues held in Washington and New Delhi every year. Nor will greater collaboration with India serve as a cure-all for Afghanistan’s myriad challenges. India’s utility is ultimately limited by its geographic proximity to Afghanistan (or lack thereof). Save for diplomatic security forces, India has no military presence in Afghanistan. But the greatest challenge undoubtedly remains Pakistan, whose support to the Taliban is in part based on an inflated fear of Indian encirclement. This renders any Indian military presence in Afghanistan particularly problematic.Pakistan holds the geographic and strategic trump cards in Afghanistan and has demonstrated a willingness to use them, as evidenced by the massive attack on the Indian Embassy in Afghanistan linked to Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency in 2008. Islamabad’s proxies are likely to show even less restraint when the coalition withdraws.
Instead, Washington and New Delhi should seek to influence Afghanistan’s post-2014 trajectory by outlining a common set of objectives and “red lines” for the Afghan government. As two of the country’s largest donors, they should jointly wield their considerable financial and political clout to ensure Kabul upholds the Afghan constitution and protections on women and minorities, conducts free and fair elections and, above all, prevents its territory from being used a base by militants. India in particular has room to more aggressively wield its cultural and political influence in Afghanistan to promote liberal ideas and progressive leaders in education, the media, and politics.
The two should then focus their joint efforts on Pakistan.Ironically, India and Pakistan share some fundamental interests in the region: neither benefits from chaos and instability in Afghanistan (contrary to the belief of some misguided Pakistani strategists), and both could reap tremendous benefits from Afghanistan evolving into a stable economic and energy bridge to Central Asia. Those shared interests were on display on May 23, when India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan joined hands with Turkmenistan to ink an agreement on the TAPI natural gas pipeline. Leveraging the broader thaw in Indo-Pakistan ties over the past year, the U.S. and India must work in tandem to unravel Islamabad’s encirclement complex and expose the folly of its zero-sum approach to Afghanistan. The creation of an India-Pakistan (or U.S.-India-Pakistan) dialogue on Afghanistan could provide a forum to dispel misconceptions about each other’s intentions in Afghanistan, if Islamabad proves willing.
In the event these efforts fail to alter Islamabad’s calculus or stem the tide of the Taliban insurgency, the U.S. and India must prepare to protect their respective and in many cases overlapping allies and investments in Afghanistan. In this eventuality, coordinating financial, political, and military assistance to anti-Taliban elements may be a necessity for both countries, and could preclude India from turning to Iran to promote its interests in Afghanistan, as it did in the 1990s. While unpalatable, such contingency planning requires effective coordination before any rapid deterioration in the Afghan security situation.
The logic is clear. India enjoys a degree of “soft power” in Afghanistan and a natural affinity among the Afghan people that the United States could only dream of. For years to come, the United States will retain a “hard power” military capability in Afghanistan that’s denied to India by geography and Pakistani sensitivities. If they hope to secure their vital interests in Afghanistan and aid that country’s uphill struggle to survive as a modern nation-state, India and the U.S. will have to harness their respective strengths for a new kind of strategic collaboration.
Jeff M. Smith is the Kraemer Strategy Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC, where Gianluca La Manno is a research associate.