WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Obama administration is grappling with how to balance India’s role in Afghanistan as arch-rival Pakistan also jostles for influence there ahead of Washington’s planned troop withdrawal to start in mid-2011.
U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is set to be included on the agenda in U.S.-India talks this week in Washington — with Delhi seeking clarity over rival Pakistan’s role, particularly in reconciliation plans with the Taliban.
The Obama administration has so far sent mixed signals over the kind of role it wants India to play in Afghanistan, leaving an impression at times, say experts, that Pakistan’s strategic interests could have more weight.
“I don’t think this (U.S.) administration or the previous one knows how to balance our legitimate interests in both Pakistan and India effectively,” said Christine Fair, assistant professor at Georgetown University and a South Asia expert.
While U.S. diplomats have praised the $1.3 billion India has pumped into reconstruction work in Afghanistan since 2001, military commanders have voiced concern that muscle-flexing by India could provoke Pakistan and stir up regional tensions.
“Increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate regional tensions and encourage Pakistani countermeasures in Afghanistan or India,” wrote U.S. General Stanley McChrystal, who is in charge of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, in a leaked assessment of the war last September.
The implication of McChrystal’s view, said expert Lisa Curtis, was that India’s approach was not viewed as helpful and Pakistan’s strategic interests were more in play.
“That sent the wrong signal,” said Curtis. “The U.S. should instead positively reinforce the political and economic activities of engagement by India (in Afghanistan),” added Curtis, who is with the Heritage Foundation.
“The idea that we would somehow ask India ... to draw back from Afghanistan to placate Pakistan which is still harboring Afghan Taliban leadership is very short-sighted and frankly makes no strategic sense,” said Curtis.
Senior U.S. officials strongly reject suggestions that Pakistani interests take preference in Afghanistan or that there has been a push to “go slow” in its ties with India.
“I have never heard that,” said one senior U.S. official. “Our consistent line, both privately to the Indians and the Pakistanis, has been that we can have a positive relationship with both countries. In other words, the friend of my enemy is not my enemy in this case,” added the official.
Washington is juggling Pakistani complaints over India’s activities, including building roads close to the border areas and reports of new diplomatic outposts, which Delhi denies.
“My response to Pakistan’s complaints about India is that you are free to do the same thing and to help Afghanistan rebuild,” said the senior U.S. official of Pakistani claims.
India, for its part, says Pakistani claims are overblown and points to its own losses in Afghanistan, including an attack on one of its guest houses this year, as well as Pakistan harboring militants on its territory.
One of Delhi’s biggest concerns is the role Pakistan might play in reconciliation moves in Afghanistan, with fears any Afghan plan to broker a deal with the Taliban could undermine India’s security and give Islamabad greater influence there.
Pakistan, one of a handful of countries that recognized the Taliban regime before the U.S. invasion in 2001, is seen as a key player in any plan for reconciliation.
“From the Indian point of view, what is at stake here is they don’t want the return of the Taliban,” said Fair.
James Dobbins, former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, said the U.S. needed to take a firm line with both countries over their activities in Afghanistan.
“The U.S. message to the Pakistanis must be to stop being so paranoid ... Its message to the Indians must be to stop provoking the Pakistanis,” said Dobbins, who is with the Rand Corporation.
One area where he said the United States wanted to see improvement was in resolving Indian and Pakistani differences over the disputed region of Kashmir, a conflict which overshadowed cooperation on Afghanistan.
“The U.S. believes that the prime difference between Pakistan and India is not over Afghanistan but over Kashmir. As long as there is a divide over Kashmir, they will never agree on Afghanistan,” said Dobbins.
Editing by Eric Beech