During their visits to India over the past two months, both US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta reiterated President Barack Obama's 2012 statement that Washington's relationship with New Delhi will be "one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century". While they sought to enhance cooperation on a range of issues during their visits, the most significant proposal that emerged was Panetta's recommendation that India play a more robust role in Afghanistan, particularly by training the country's nascent military and police forces.
Not only does this suggestion represent a significant shift in the US policy away from Pakistan, but it also indicates that American policymakers have concluded that New Delhi has more to contribute to Afghanistan's internal stability than Islamabad does. India also has a direct stake in deepening its engagement with the Hamid Karzai government — both to advance important political, economic, and strategic interests and to help bolster its status as a leading regional power.
For years, India has played an important, albeit low-profile, role in Afghanistan, focusing primarily on the provision of economic and commercial assistance. New Delhi has so far pledged more than $2 billion in development support, making it Kabul's fifth-largest aid donor. Indian firms have also invested heavily in transportation infrastructure projects which will facilitate the export of Afghan goods to regional and global markets. Paralleling these efforts has been a concerted campaign to integrate Afghanistan into the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which, if achieved, will potentially generate as much as $2 billion in economic activity.
It is precisely such activities that prompted US officials in September 2011 to suggest that India serve as a cornerstone of a ‘New Silk Road' initiative that will entrench Kabul as a key commercial bridge between South and Central Asia. The premise is that the regional role of this kind will help promote Afghanistan's political and economic development. This will undermine support for the Taliban and violent extremism. Importantly for India, such developments will also reduce the risk of Afghan territory being exploited as a staging ground for terrorist attacks on Indian territory.
Despite its active economic engagement with the Karzai government, India has only recently become involved in Afghan security matters. As part of the bilateral Strategic Partnership Agreement signed in October 2011, New Delhi agreed to provide light weapons and training in counterinsurgency and high-altitude warfare to the Afghan army, air force, and police. In addition to professionalising Kabul's security forces, this assistance will enable India to build valuable relationships with Afghan officials at all levels. It will also help fill the vacuum left by the planned reduction in American and coalition forces in 2014, which explains why Washington is so eager to encourage greater Indian engagement in the Afghan security sector.
With Afghanistan likely to experience significant changes in 2014 — not only will the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) start the process of drawing down their troop levels, but Afghanistan will also elect a new leader, as President Hamid Karzai has pledged not to stand for a third term — India faces important decisions about the nature of its future involvement in the country. Some commentators have called for an end to economic assistance, arguing that it has failed to advance New Delhi's influence and endangered aid workers by exposing them to insurgent attacks. Others believe that years of well-publicised development projects have made India popular among ordinary Afghans.
India should not shy away from expanding security cooperation with Kabul. More than 100,000 Indian troops have participated in 40 United Nations peacekeeping missions since the 1950s; the Navy has deployed ships on counter-piracy missions off the coast of Somalia; and within the region, New Delhi has provided military training and assistance to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Nepal. Similar force projection in Afghanistan — through advanced training or operational troop deployments — would solidify India's role as the primary provider of security in South Asia.
In all probability, Pakistan will interpret Indian moves to augment military engagement as an attempt to surround the country and deny it ‘strategic depth'. In this sense, there is a risk that the Pakistani military and intelligence services will view India as having crossed a critical ‘red line' and argue that a retaliatory response is merited. Islamabad could respond by unleashing its proxy groups to attack Indians in Afghanistan or plot another devastating Mumbai-style attack. There is little that either New Delhi or Washington could do to dispel Pakistan's fears or deter it from responding in a negative manner, though confidence-building measures — such as steps to ensure that Indian security initiatives are transparent to the Pakistani military — might help allay some of Islamabad's concerns.
In the long run, a more robust Indian military role in Afghanistan represents one of the best ways to advance New Delhi's strategic interests while fostering Kabul's continued security and economic development after US and Nato forces begin to withdraw in 2014. At the recent Strategic Dialogue meeting, external affairs minister SM Krishna and Clinton agreed to intensify their cooperation on Afghanistan, including by convening trilateral discussions with the Karzai government. Options for enhanced Indian assistance to Afghanistan's security forces — and ways to mitigate the risks of Pakistani retaliation — should be a leading topic in these discussions.
Larry Hanauer and Peter Chalk are authors of the forthcoming book India's and Pakistan's Strategies in Afghanistan: Implications for the United States and the Region. They are senior international policy analysts at the RAND Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan research institution. The views expressed by the authors are personal.