There is much irony in the fact that Afghanistan has evolved into a huge rock in the path of relations between India and the United States. Strategically, there is little difference between the two countries. More so than almost any other country, New Delhi hopes that Washington will keep its troops in Afghanistan, defeat the Taliban and establish a democratic and sovereign government in Kabul.
They differ strongly, however, on how this should be accomplished. The cost of the Afghan war and geographical necessity have meant Pakistan has gained a larger-than-life role in Washington’s ‘Af-Pak’ policy. The US has no illusions that Pakistan speaks with a forked tongue on Afghanistan. India may complain, but ultimately it cannot provide an alternative to what Pakistan provides. Thus the irony: Pakistan is more essential to the war than India, but it is far less genuine a supporter of the US’s aims.
Unfortunately, neither India nor the US has found out a way to get around this thorny tangle of contradiction. This constitutes a failure of diplomacy on both sides. At the very least, Manmohan Singh and Barack Obama should have provided the relationship enough ballast to let their two countries sail above the Af-Pak conundrum. But nothing of the sort has happened. The conclusion of the civil nuclear agreement left a vacuum in the bilateral discourse and nothing has yet filled that space. The result is that minor irritants and excitable commentary dominate. Access to David Headley is important but hardly the stuff of grand strategy. India is as much to blame as the US. Its feetdragging on various military agreements and bungling of the civil nuclear liability bill’s passage is reawakening sceptics in Washington who have long argued India is not ready to be a global player.
Trivial pursuit has replaced chess even when the two heads of government met. What was striking about the Singh-Obama meeting in Washington was how much Pakistan-related issues dominated the proceedings. India lowered its own strategic horizon and the US did not bother to try and lift it. Things can and are likely to change. The US
Af-Pak military game is still unfolding and Pakistan may yet be surprised by its consequences. But more importantly, new and important synergies in education, technology and commerce are just starting to come to fruition between the two countries. It’s time New Delhi realises that medium-sized ideas can be as transformational as one big one.