US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta urged New Delhi to adopt a “more active role” in Afghanistan as NATO troops prepare to withdraw and championed an expansion of the US-India defense and security partnership. Speaking in the Indian capital during a visit there earlier this month, he characterized India as the “linchpin” of Washington’s strategic rebalancing towards Asia.
Panetta’s remarks illustrate the extent to which the United States regards India as a central component of American security designs, although it is unlikely that New Delhi will enter into any formal security arrangement with Washington. They also reflect the current reality that Washington’s tumultuous relationship with Pakistan has almost completely collapsed.
Having announced its intention to strategically “pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific late last year, the Obama Administration views India as a critical centerpiece of its security architecture there. Panetta’s call for Washington and New Delhi to deepen their defense cooperation is consistent with this view, and part of a larger effort by Washington to persuade India that the two countries share similar strategic and security goals in the region. On the surface, such reasoning seems sound. Both the United States and India are concerned with China’s rapid rise and with general instability afflicting the Indian subcontinent. New Delhi is an obvious counterweight to Beijing and extends considerable influence over an otherwise persistently volatile part of the world. Washington sees New Delhi as a net provider of security and a force of stability in an area of key interest to the United States and would, therefore, like to deepen its partnership with India in these realms.
India’s response thus far, however, has been measured. While it is certainly wary about China’s rise, India does not want to risk provoking open conflict with a great power with whom it already has a complicated relationship characterized by bitter border disputes and a host of other challenges. As a result, India is unlikely to enter into any kind of security arrangement with the United States that will inevitably appear aimed at Beijing. New Delhi is more interested in purchasing US arms, obtaining access to American military technology, and focusing on other dimensions of the strategic partnership than in containing China, at least overtly.
With respect to Afghanistan, Panetta’s appeal to India to engage more deeply in the war-torn country, including potentially training Afghan security forces, not only represents a marked shift of US policy on the subject, but also confirms that relations with Pakistan are at near collapse. Throughout the duration of the war in Afghanistan, the US had pushed India to take only a limited role there, one that focused on economic aid, infrastructure, development, and other forms of non-military assistance.
Islamabad vociferously objected to India having any kind of security based responsibilities in the country, fearing it would threaten Pakistan’s strategic interests and encroach on what it regarded as its rightful sphere of influence. Needing to ensure Pakistan’s continued cooperation in its war against terror, and already facing a strained relationship with its supposed ally, Washington deferred to Islamabad’s wishes, pressing New Delhi to restrict its activities in Afghanistan.
Washington’s desire to now see New Delhi deepen its engagement with Kabul is a considerable change in US policy, and sends a strong message to Islamabad that the United States is willing to disregard Pakistani sensitivities and concerns. This is unsurprising considering the precipitous decline that ties with Islamabad have experienced over the past year and a half. Bilateral relations with Islamabad have lurched from one crisis to the next, each more damaging than the last. From the disclosure that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan just miles away from the country’s most prestigious military academy in May 2011, to Pakistan’s decision to keep critical NATO supply routes over the last six months closed, Washington’s relationship with Islamabad seems to have reached its lowest point yet.
Panetta publicly acknowledged as much during his visit to India, and later to Afghanistan. Abandoning all diplomatic speak, he characterized US relations with Islamabad as “complicated,” “frustrating,” and “difficult.” He was also unapologetic about the Obama administration’s drone campaign in Pakistan, and demanded that officials there stop allowing their country to serve as a safe haven for terrorism. Panetta further warned that he and other US officials were “reaching the limits of their patience” with Pakistan.
As the United States prepares to leave Afghanistan and to redirect its focus towards the Asia-Pacific, Panetta’s remarks in New Delhi reflect the new prevailing realities now governing both regions. With its relationship with Pakistan in a free fall, India has become an increasingly important component to US strategy in both Afghanistan and Asia. Whether India is willing to play this role, however, is a different matter.
Ronak D. Desai practices law in Washington, DC and holds a joint law and public policy degree from Harvard Law School and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government