In the clearest statement to date of Washington’s reservations about the rising Indian economic and political profile in Afghanistan, the top American general in charge of the war against the Taliban and other insurgents there has said India’s increasing influence in the insurgency-wracked country “is likely to exacerbate regional tensions”.
In his ‘Commander’s Initial Assessment’ on the war in Afghanistan dated August 30, made public on Sunday, General Stanley A. McChrystal said the situation there is “serious” and “deteriorating”. Though a significant section of his report emphasises the need for a change in U.S. strategy and the way U.S. forces deployed there “think and operate”, the section on “external influences” is likely to grate on New Delhi’s ears because of its implication that India ought to scale back its presence in order to placate Pakistani fears about growing Indian influence.
“Indian political and economic influence is increasing in Afghanistan, including significant development efforts and financial investment. In addition, the current Afghan government is perceived by Islamabad to be pro-Indian”, the McChrystal report notes. But it adds: “While Indian activities largely benefit the Afghan people, increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India”.
India has extended more than $1 billion to Afghanistan in financial and development assistance and is training the Afghan police force and bureaucracy. In recent years, it has been asked by key European countries like Britain and France to step up its assistance even as the U.S. has warned of a negative reaction by Pakistan.
The coy phrase ‘countermeasures’ in the McChrystal report is clearly a reference to Pakistan stepping up its funding of anti-Indian and anti-Afghan (and thus anti-U.S.) insurgent groups and terrorists.
However, in its section on Pakistan, the report only says that insurgent and violent extremist groups based in that country “are reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI”, an assessment far less categorical than what U.S. officials and military commanders have said before in public and private. The report zeroes in on Al-Qaeda’s links to the Haqqani network (HQN) inside Pakistan and says “expanded HQN control could create a favourable environment for AQAM to re-establish safe-havens in Afghanistan”.
The HQN is believed to be behind the bombing of India’s embassy in Kabul in 2007 and the recent assassination of Afghanistan’s deputy chief of intelligence, Abdullah Laghmani, and is widely suspected of enjoying the patronage of the ISI.
Though the McChrystal report falls short of prescribing that India scale back its presence in Afghanistan, the implication is clear: the U.S. is dependent on Pakistani support for the war in Afghanistan, Pakistan’s capacity to use extremists to hurt American interests remains high, and that India should realise its assistance to Afghanistan might provoke Islamabad into taking “countermeasures”.
Gen. McChrystal calls for additional U.S. forces but says “focusing on force or resource requirements misses the point entirely ? Success is achievable, but it will not be attained simply by trying harder or ‘doubling down’ on the previous strategy”.
In line with the Pentagon’s view of the damage that mounting civilian casualties have had on the image of the U.S. and Nato forces in Afghanistan, the McChrystal report squarely admits that “pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we seek to protect. In addition, we run the risk of strategic defeat by pursuing tactical wins that cause civilian casualties or unnecessary collateral damage. The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves”.