India, US and the Afghan Security Crisis

Spearhead Analysis – 31.07.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

During the course of the US presidential elections, bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan never made it as a top priority under Trump’s agenda. Trump built his campaign around calls for greater isolationism in foreign policy and a move to a transactional style of leadership. While this seems to have helped Trump bag votes in the election, predictably enough this attitude towards foreign policy wasn’t going to hold for long.

Soon enough, as the situation in Afghanistan grew more complex Trump had to re-engage US in the Afghan war. Presently, Washington is mulling over sending more soldiers to assist and train the Afghan forces. This decision is not motivated by the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan alone, but it also has to do with the nature of the administration itself.

Including many senior military strategists that have previously fought in Afghanistan, the Trump administration consists of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the former and current national security adviser, and Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, who has also lost a son in the Afghan war. These members of the current administration along with others have closely witnessed the Taliban agenda play out in Afghanistan—that, and more simply, it can be understood that being military leaders they are already motivated to win America’s longest war yet.

The following re-focus on the Afghan crisis by Washington may then be characterized as a very deliberate one.

As much as Pakistan would like to stand side by side with the US the lack of trust on both sides (in relation to Pakistan’s relationship with the US and its relationship with Afghanistan) is likely to keep this from happening. Rhetoric so far signals that Pakistan owing to its present Taliban policy does not figure according to Trump as sharing America’s ‘Afghan burden’.

There is some indication however that Trump feels differently in this context about India.

As the recent Modi visit to the US wrapped up, the resulting joint statement held that the US and India have a shared interest in working to resolve the Afghan conflict.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis is due to soon unveil the Trump administration’s Af-Pak policy, clearing Washington’s stance on the best possible way to settle the Afghan crisis and also inevitably settling any confusion over the future course of the Pak-US relationship.

With the unveiling of an Afghan policy fast approaching, it is significant to consider the possibility and subsequent repercussions of a deeper Indian involvement in the region.

The first time the US looked to India to share its ‘Afghan burden’ was perhaps when President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster discussed the situation in Afghanistan with his Indian counterpart, Ajit Doval nearly a week after the US military dropped a massive non-nuclear bomb in the country. Before that, Ajit Doval visited Washington in March to discuss the situation in Afghanistan with top Trump administration officials including the Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and McMaster.

Overtime, India has expanded its stakes in Afghanistan: upping security and gifting Kabul eight MI 25 attack helicopters. But is this enough to expect India will also be willing to, for instance, put actual ‘boots on the ground’?

After all, for Trump terrorism is a West Asian construct. The only policy Trump sees necessary sanctions tackling the threat head-on. While this could work for the US, India has a lot to be wary of: India has substantially increased its influence in Afghanistan, but it has also recently started stepping up engagement with Iran—a West Asian state. With the lifting of sanctions on Iran, India reportedly committed $500 million to speed the development of Chabahar port. India has sedulously worked to win over the Arab Gulf states and Iran, recognizing how vital these countries are for India’s diplomatic footprint in the Middle East.

India would have to seriously consider how an increased engagement in Afghanistan will impact its relationship with West Asia.

Afghanistan has served as a US base to oversee Iran and Iran’s alleged support for the Taliban and Haqqani Network in Afghanistan. As the Iran-US relationship continues to deteriorate, Indian officials are still surprised that the once hard-fought for Iran deal remains intact. Amid the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council crisis it will be hard enough for India to navigate through its relationships in West Asia, without adding the Afghan crisis to the mix.

Pakistan will follow any developments in the scale of Indian engagement in Afghanistan assiduously. Having India more than economically engaged in Afghanistan could certainly unnerve Pakistan, especially now that it is clear Washington has an undecided and possibly direction-less Pakistan policy.

Before PM Modi’s visit to the US, a bipartisan legislation was introduced in Congress to strip Pakistan of the status of a major non-Nato ally (MNNA), under claims that it has failed to act against terrorists. While such moves that signal a declining US interest in improving ties with Pakistan are welcomed in India, knowing the Trump administration these should not be taken as a measure of the administration’s overall Pakistan policy.

After Modi returned from his US visit, a five-member delegation led by US Senator John McCain visited Pakistan and Afghanistan. Senator John McCain lauded Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts and restated confidence in the Pak-US relationship. This was a fairly confusing change in tone by the administration. His remarks and appreciation for Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts marked a sharp turn in US’s anticipated hard approach towards Pakistan.

However, as the delegation landed in Afghanistan both Senator Lindsey Graham and McCain came down hard on Pakistan, thereby confusing the issue.

McCain’s Pakistan visit can be explained as one of three things: either it was a US attempt to win Pakistan over, or it was an attempt by the administration at minimizing the damage caused to the Pak-US relationship after Modi’s visit and Trump’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric, it could even have been a move to balance US’s bilateral relationships as the administration works on a definite policy.

While the motivation is still unclear, India has a lot to consider in siding with the inconsistent Trump administration.

With China increasing its presence in Gwadar, US may also be similarly inclined to increase its presence in Afghanistan in order to balance against China’s influence in the region; India may even have to consider assisting the US in establishing perhaps a permanent presence in the region.

If cooperation in Afghanistan grows and if India is able to convince the US to back its stance on CPEC too, the Chinese agenda in the region will be significantly affected.

At the same time, the Belt and Road Initiative is unlikely to hit its target if the Afghan security situation is in shambles. The murder of two Chinese citizens in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province at the hands of the IS in June is evidence of the worsening situation. China is also mindful of the impact an extremist government takeover in Afghanistan could have inside its own borders. While China does consider stabilizing Afghanistan as vital, it is also likely to be weary of growing closeness between Washington and New Delhi.

When the US and India released their joint statement and attacked China’s connectivity projects, human rights record and debt financing, China took note. It recently warned India against getting increasingly comfortable in its closeness with the US. With China and Russia now working together to extend their influence and deepen their partnership, America may also not be willing to pursue a policy of complete withdrawal from Afghanistan.

India has so far been fairly careful not to irk Pakistan by increasing engagement anywhere beyond the economic realm in Afghanistan. Pursuing a policy bypassing Pakistan and increasing engagement in Afghanistan could risk retaliation, especially if China agrees to back Pakistan and help increase its rightful role in the Afghan region. This could compromise the stability of the region even further.

In order to work with the US, it is important to understand the dynamics within the Trump administration. For India to secure its position in any partnership with the US it will have to better acquaint itself with Trump’s transactional style of conducting foreign policy; joining the US in Afghanistan will not alone guarantee the US will return the favor in case India is under attack. Trump is a mercurial and unpredictable leader. Lately, the Trump administration has been struggling with getting behind Trump on issues of domestic and international importance. If India demands any such cooperation there is a good chance of it being disappointed. At this point it is important for India to also have an independent Afghan policy as it looks to engage with the US president and familiarize itself with Trump’s somewhat undiplomatic style of conducting diplomacy.