Don’t overload Delhi-Washington ties with Afghanistan, or issues like democracy under Modi
US-India relations continue to strengthen, despite the persistence of opponents on both sides. A big thank you to Beijing, which has mainly taken on the burden of moving this relationship forward, as it does not let itself be discouraged by the difficulties of the task or even by common sense. While another section of experts tires of constantly reminding Indian commentary to focus on the central purpose and scope of the US-Indian partnership, it is also essential to do so. It seeks to place additional burdens on the relationship by those who seek to distract it from its main focus – cooperation against China. Neither the stability of Afghanistan nor the precarious liberalism of India are problems that the US-India partnership can solve. The visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to India shows that the two governments are now quite adept at dealing with such external pressures. But public discourse, especially in India, has yet to catch up.
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United States-India and Afghanistan
First on Afghanistan. It has always been foolish of New Delhi to expect the United States to continue to spend blood and treasure to keep Afghanistan out of the hands of the Taliban. Indeed, it is not even in India’s interest for the United States to stay in Afghanistan, for at least three reasons. First, continuing to stay in Afghanistan and deploying its energies there dilutes the power the United States can wield in balancing China, a relatively much more important Indian strategic objective today. Second, as long as the United States remains in Afghanistan, it will also be Rawalpindi’s hostage. Leaving Afghanistan means the United States is less vulnerable to Pakistani blackmail, which greatly benefits India. Third, it is a little less than credible for the Indians to ask the United States to stay in Afghanistan when there is little appetite in India to send its own forces to defend the Afghan people. While the United States has so far been reluctant to allow a greater Indian role in Afghanistan, frankly, their objections have been a good excuse for India as well. It is difficult to imagine that Indian policymakers or the strategic community, let alone the people at large, would support an Indian expeditionary mission in Afghanistan.
Two counterpoints are also to be considered. First, the plight of Afghanistan and its long-suffering people. There is no doubt that it will be a disaster for Afghanistan if the Taliban thugs take over the country. Clearly, India and the United States can and should help as much as they can to bolster the Afghan national military forces to prevent the Taliban from gaining control. It would be foolish to abandon Kabul and seek a compromise with the Taliban because there is little chance that the Taliban could cut themselves from the cords of Rawalpindi’s apron. But the fight must ultimately be waged mainly by the Afghans themselves.
Second, the danger of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan, with comparisons to the situation India faced in the 1990s. This is not a serious objection. The terrorist threat India faces is a consequence of Pakistan’s action, not Afghanistan’s. Simply put, India does not face an Afghan problem; he is facing a Pakistani problem. But the solution to this, from diplomacy on one end of the spectrum to military retaliation on the other, must be focused on Pakistan. Indian politics have evolved significantly towards the lower end of the spectrum.
India should also recognize its own mistakes. Despite its claims on all of Kashmir, India has never sought to reclaim Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) by force or diplomacy. Pakistan has on several occasions. Had India reclaimed Gilgit-Baltistan, it would have changed the geopolitics of the region, ending Pakistan’s status as the only viable territorial link with Afghanistan and severing Pakistan from China. Instead, we have had criticism of Pakistan exploiting its advantage in Afghanistan and complaining about the US withdrawal or China’s construction of the CPEC corridor through the territory claimed by India, none of which is is particularly useful.
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State of democracy in India
Similar issues face the other major demand that is placed on the US-India relationship – to protect India’s liberal democracy. This is a lost hope, for two reasons: First, any direct US involvement in Indian political affairs would most likely be counterproductive as it would simply cause more friction in US-Indian relations and not do much. – something to change the behavior of Narendra Modi’s government. The commitment of Indian governments to liberal principles, in particular to limit the arbitrary use of state power and protect individual rights and freedom of expression, has always been suspect. The current government’s record is also not encouraging, compared to previous governments with the possible exception of Indira Gandhi’s government during the emergency. And it has worsened in recent years.
But this is not a problem that can be solved with awkward outside intervention. It makes no sense to outsource India’s domestic political tasks to a foreign power. Correcting India’s political problems requires national political action and activism. The sad truth is that the reason the government is able to get away with such behavior is because of the pathetic state of the Indian opposition, especially Congress. As long as the opposition remains weak and divided, there will be no way to control the power of the Indian state.
Of course, whether the United States would like it is in itself a good question. Although the United States has been accused of placing democracy at the center of its foreign policy, Washington has generally been pragmatic in seeking to promote democracy, which is usually the case when other, more critical American objectives do. no obstacle. American rhetoric on such matters is seldom an indicator of actual politics. Joe Biden’s administration, even in recent months, has been extremely cautious, sensitive and strategic, no doubt due to the discipline imposed by the emerging great power with China. The deterioration of Indian politics will have to be corrected by those of us concerned, not by outsiders.
India and the United States face many challenges. But the partnership between the United States and India is not meant to solve most of them, other than the overwhelming common challenge.
The author is professor of international politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. He tweets @RRajagopalanJNU. Opinions are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)
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