In recent weeks, a new policy conundrum has emerged for the U.S. as it attempts to help launch a peace process in Afghanistan. Soon after the U.S. government formally requested Pakistan’s assistance to bring the Taliban to the table, Islamabad helped facilitate meetings between senior Taliban representatives and U.S. officials in Abu Dhabi. The U.S. government appears to be acknowledging that Pakistan, given its influence over the Taliban, is an important and potentially helpful player in the peace process in Afghanistan.
However, it has also signalled its desire for India, its growing defence partner, to be more involved in reconciliation efforts and in Afghanistan more broadly. At various times during his term, President Donald Trump — sometimes crudely, as with his mocking comment about New Delhi limiting itself to building libraries in Afghanistan — has suggested that New Delhi step up its game. The recent visit to India of Zalmay Khalilzad (in photo), the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, highlights the importance that Washington accords to India in Afghanistan.
Herein lies the dilemma: the U.S. cannot have it both ways. If Pakistan is enlisted in reconciliation efforts, India won’t be keen to get involved. But if India does take on a larger role, then Pakistan may well step back.
To be sure, India and Pakistan have proved to be willing and able to partner regionally. They may struggle to coexist in SAARC, but they do cooperate on the TAPI pipeline, and they’re both members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an arrangement mostly of Central Asian states, and China and Russia.
Of course, partnering in Afghanistan is much more delicate and challenging. Fortunately for the U.S., this policy dilemma may work itself out on its own. Despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desire for a more robust regional foreign policy, India appears content to keep a low profile in Afghanistan, outside of its continued development and economic assistance projects. Tellingly, New Delhi has distanced itself from the Indian Army Chief’s remark supporting talks with the Taliban with no preconditions. Additionally, India will not volunteer to play a role in reconciliation efforts unless formally invited by Kabul. Afghan officials, grudgingly cognisant of Pakistan’s significant role, are unlikely to do so unless current efforts to kick-start talks do not bear fruit, or Pakistan is no longer seen as helpful.
Still, it is important that India not be left on the outside looking in amid efforts to spark a reconciliation process with such major implications for it. Accordingly, the U.S. should keep India fully informed, at the highest levels, about any developments in reconciliation. U.S. officials owe that engagement to one of their most important partners in South Asia.
The writer is Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, Washington, DC