US open to greater role for India in Afghanistan

Richard Olson, U.S. envoy for AfPak. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Richard Olson, U.S. envoy for AfPak. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The U.S. is now more open to a larger role for India in Afghanistan, partly due to its frustration over Pakistan’s failure or unwillingness to deliver on the promises it has been making with regard to the peace process.

U.S. Defence Secretary Ash Carter’s visit to India emphasises the partnership between the countries, but a less-discussed visit last week to New Delhi, of U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson, indicates fresh U.S. thinking on India’s role in Afghanistan, according to diplomatic sources.

However, the caveat is that India can never replace Pakistan in U.S.’s Afghanistan calculus, and the signalling may well be more to Pakistan than to India, these sources told The Hindu .

Mr. Olson and Peter Lavoy, Senior Director for South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, met with senior Indian officials, including India’s National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval. They then joined Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul on an unannounced visit.

Appreciation for India

Mr. Olson’s visit, a State Department statement said, was “an opportunity for U.S. officials to express appreciation for India’s support for the people and Government of Afghanistan, including trade ties, security and development assistance, as well as India’s key role in promoting a more stable and prosperous region”.

While the U.S. has never opposed or actively discouraged India from playing a significant role in Afghanistan, it has been very sensitive to Pakistan’s objections, particularly on security-related issues. The U.S. has welcomed India’s efforts in reconstruction, development and institution-building in Afghanistan that take place under the U.S security umbrella, but maintained ambiguity on its security role. A t the same time, at Pakistan’s insistence, it has kept India out of the Afghanistan peace negotiations, which are now a four-nation initiative of the U.S., China, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“India is in Afghanistan because the Afghans want us to be there, regardless of what Pakistan or U.S. may want,” an Indian official pointed out.

The U.S. is grappling with the increasing complexity of the situation in Afghanistan, even as it is planning to pull its troops out of the country by next year.

Meanwhile, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears less constrained by Pakistan’s views and more willing to enhance cooperation with Afghanistan on security issues. India and Afghanistan had signed the Strategic Partnership Agreement in 2011, but security cooperation slowed as both sides sought not to antagonise Pakistan. However, Mr. Modi’s recent visit to Afghanistan and India’s transferring of three Mi-25 attack helicopters to the Afghan Air Force (AAF) recently indicate fresh thinking on the Indian side.

A senior State Department official said Pakistan’s cooperation was “notable” and China’s was “constructive”. “We [the four countries] have met a number of times.. Now, of course, this was without the Taliban, but we wanted to lay out terms of reference and a road map for peace and do everything possible to facilitate an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process and to test the proposition that the Taliban were prepared to come to the table.”

However, the official was not sure when Taliban would join the talks and what they might want. “[U]nless and until an actual negotiating process begins, it’s very difficult to know what the Taliban actually seeks. So there’s an information gap here,” he said.

Pakistan has so far not been able to get Taliban to the process, even as new challenges emerge. Last year demonstrated the vulnerability of the Afghanistan security forces. They briefly lost the city of Kunduz to Taliban. Casualties rose to an all-time high of more than 11,000.

Meanwhile, Mullah Mansoor, who has succeeded Mullah Omar as Taliban chief, is struggling to consolidate power within the group, even as some Taliban factions are transmuting into those of the Islamic State (IS).

Given this uncertainty, Mr. Kerry’s mission in Afghanistan was to demonstrate U.S.’s support for the unity government. Dismissing the notion that the current arrangement will be replaced by a new one, Mr. Kerry said the Ashraf Ghani-led government would continue for five years.

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Printable version | May 26, 2022 1:58:49 am |