Indo-U.S. relations have been running into rough weather recently. Trade problems, India’s decision to buy S-400 missiles from Russia, and differences over Iran have all taken a toll. Both sides are gamely working to ensure that these don’t do lasting damage, but a new issue – disagreements over the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and its consequences – now threatens to overload the agenda and potentially do serious damage, especially to their common interests in the Indo-Pacific.
It is not clear that their differences over AfPak can be entirely resolved but both sides can take efforts to limit the fallout from these disagreements before it is too late. This does require though that both New Delhi and Washington understand each other’s compulsions in AfPak and recognize that their common interests in the Indo-Pacific are more important.
After almost two decades of fighting to keep the Taliban out, Washington is understandably exhausted. There is little hope that that the United States can win the war and even lesser hope that it can strengthen Afghan government forces sufficiently that they can contain the Taliban without American assistance. So, the choice the United States faces is to stay on for the foreseeable future or try and cut a deal with the Taliban to withdraw with a modicum of grace.
Added to this is President Trump’s domestic compulsion. Americans are weary of the war, and have been for some time. Barack Obama promised to get the United States out of Afghanistan but was unable to do so. President Trump, who came to power complaining of the costs of the United States’ over-commitments abroad is even more motivated. With the election campaign beginning, and the election itself fifteen months away, he appears intent on succeeding where his predecessor failed.
The key problem is that it is unlikely that the United States can withdraw from Afghanistan without Pakistan’s support and cooperation. Though the Taliban in Afghanistan is a diverse and a somewhat less than unified force, it does appear clear that Pakistan has sufficient control over them to ensure that no negotiations can take place without the good offices of Islamabad. Trump has been critical of Pakistani behavior in the past, and Washington in general, is well aware of the history of Pakistani duplicity.
Moreover, the Taliban’s commitments that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used for terrorist activities against the United States and the West is a laughable proposition. Once the United States withdraws, there is little that Washington can do to ensure that a Taliban government will live up to the promises they make. Nevertheless, these commitments are a useful fiction that provides cover for Washington to blame that they have withdrawn honorably.
If the United States’ imperative is understandable, so is India’s. If the Taliban come back to power in Afghanistan, there is little doubt that Islamabad will be able to use Afghan territory to, once again, base anti-India terrorists there. With India demonstrating that it now has the political willingness to strike terror camps in Pakistan, Pakistan’s incentive for exploiting Afghan territory is even greater.
Though India’s interests in preventing a Taliban takeover is clear, its options are limited. India appears to have done little to build up any specific source of support of proxies within Afghanistan, to give India any voice in the negotiations for the U.S. withdrawal. What this means is that while the Taliban might give at least some paper guarantee to the United States about non-use of its territory for international terrorism purposes, India cannot even expect that. New Delhi would prefer that the U.S. forces stay on in Afghanistan but that is not likely. And nobody gives much heed to India’s mantras like “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned” process.
A key question is how the disagreement between the United States and India on Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role in it can be managed. Washington and President Trump personally are not likely to look at any Indian efforts to slow down or sabotage the U.S. withdrawal very kindly. Equally, New Delhi is likely to be more than a bit peeved if the United States facilitates Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, especially with Pakistan’s assistance. Thus, there is little doubt that when it comes to the AfPak, the Indian and American interests are directly contradictory.
What is worrying is the possibility that these disagreements will bleed into other areas and affect cooperation in critical areas, especially the Indo-Pacific. Though there are disagreements between India and the United States on how to balance China in the Indo-Pacific, these are relatively minor. But unhappiness over AfPak can raise issues of dependability about the other in both capitals. There are already increasing concerns in Washington about whether the United States was wise to bet on India; and in New Delhi, concerns about American dependability have never been far from the surface. It remains to be seen whether there is sufficient maturity on both sides to continue cooperating on one area while they have significant differences in another.