The US, Afghanistan and the ‘India card’

US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta recently visited New Delhi in an attempt to convince the Indians to raise their level of engagement in Afghanistan from economic and development assistance to security forces as well [AP]

Washington, DC - When in 1990 the US was in the midst of organising an international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, it made a desperate plea to its Israeli ally: Please, please do not help.

Saddam may have been a strategic ignoramus in most respects, but he had wits enough to know that the best way of unravelling the coalition of Arab countries arrayed against him, and to deny the regional staging areas on which the Americans relied was to frame the coming fight as a struggle between Arab nationalism and US-backed Zionism. He made clear that if hostilities were launched against him, he would strike immediately at the “principle enemy”: Israel.

Greatly fearful of this ploy, the Americans importuned the Israelis not to respond, even if struck by Iraqi Scud missiles which, in fact, they were – repeatedly. Perhaps surprisingly, and certainly wisely, the Israelis complied. The international coalition, including its Arab partners, remained intact and Saddam was defeated in short order.

But let us suppose this US-led military venture had not worked out as planned. Let us imagine that Saddam had succeeded in his strategy of bogging down US and coalition forces in extended trench warfare. And let us further suppose that the American public had tired of this far-away struggle, that the political opponents of Bush the Elder had succeeded in branding this a “war for oil” not worthy of American lives, and that pressure for a rapid drawdown of US forces had induced other coalition partners to quickly follow suit. What then?

Surely the US would be fearful of the consequences of leaving an intact Iraqi army poised to seize the critical oil fields on the western littoral of the Arabian Gulf. Unable any longer to protect its interests on its own, the US would have to identify, organise and reinforce regional allies with a direct, long-term stake in containing Saddam. In doing so, Americans would not want to overlook the strongest military power in the region, a close and reliable ally, and one whose fear of a strengthened and hegemonic Iraq was even greater than their own. Surely some in the US national security structure, unencumbered by too much regional knowledge, would argue that Israel must be included in any such regional coalition.

Patience is running out

If this sounds implausible, consider US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta’s visit this week to New Delhi, in which he pressed the Indians to raise their level of engagement in Afghanistan. No longer satisfied simply with Indian provision of economic and development assistance, the American defence chief indicated he would like to see India engaged with Afghan security forces as well.

In so saying, he was apparently not unmindful of how this message would be received in Islamabad. Indeed, it was apparent from the Secretary’s comments in both Delhi, and later Kabul, that Pakistan is very much on his mind. Referring repeatedly to the militant safe havens on the Pakistani side of the Durand Line, Panetta made clear that US patience with Pakistani policy is running out, and his tone regarding the current high tempo of drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas was anything but apologetic.

“The Pakistanis have made no secret of their opposition to unrestricted drone strikes against militants on their soil.

Secretary Panetta’s pique is understandable. The Pakistanis have made no secret of their opposition to unrestricted drone strikes against militants on their soil, but have provided no near-term assurances that the safe havens of concern to Kabul and to NATO will otherwise be addressed. And if Islamabad has identified a clear quid-pro-quo concerning the end-game in Afghanistan in trade for its cooperation against the Taliban and the Haqqani network, it is not clear to outside observers what this demand might be, outside of a vague desire for a negotiated solution. And it is still less clear to anyone that the Pakistanis could actually deliver on any promises they made concerning safe havens and the militants who inhabit them.

Even so, it is hard to imagine how the US government could suppose that encouragement of Indian security assistance to the Kabul government would advance its long-term interests. The fact that the Pentagon would do so should be seen not as a trump card, but as an act of desperation. Consider the circumstances: The US has made clear that the timeline for its draw-down from Afghanistan is swift and certain. Another 23,000 troops are due out by the end of this September. The results of May’s NATO summit in Chicago make clear that there is little enthusiasm in the coalition for the continued financial commitment which will still be required even after NATO troops have departed. And the nature and extent of the US commitment to Afghanistan under their recently-signed “Strategic Partnership Agreement” could hardly be more vague.

Afghan civil war plus proxies

While Washington’s desire for more robust regional engagement in support of Afghanistan is understandable, the notion that a qualitatively more aggressive Indian posture in Afghanistan would serve to encourage more constructive Pakistani behaviour – and still less, as some US defence officials have actually suggested, genuine Indo-Pakistani cooperation inside Afghanistan – borders on the hopelessly naive.

It may be that Secretary Panetta’s gambit in New Delhi is merely a new form of coercion against Pakistan. And in any case, the Indians have made clear that they are reluctant to step more deeply into a risky and highly unstable situation merely to help facilitate an unwanted US departure.

But the US government should know that to the extent it is successful in pressing India into high-profile security engagement in Afghanistan, the more likely it is to produce the very situation it fears most: A renewed Afghan civil war in which India and Pakistan are actively engaged in support of their respective proxies, and in which Islamabad’s ties to the Taliban are strongly reinforced.

America’s strategic relationships with Israel and India have more in common than is often appreciated. But just as the US has been cautious of the practical use to which its alliance with Israel is put, it should likewise exercise great caution in playing the “India card” in Afghanistan.

Robert Grenier is a retired, 27-year veteran of the CIA’s Clandestine Service. He was Director of the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2004 to 2006.

Source: Al Jazeera