US Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to India this week focused largely on climate change and economic issues. From a US domestic perspective, this was no surprise. President Obama laid out Tuesday a sweeping plan for the US to address climate change and over 200 US Congressional leaders last week chastised India for discriminatory trade practices.
In choosing this tack, however, Secretary Kerry may have lost a valuable opportunity to enhance mutual understanding and cooperation with India on key security and defence issues, a necessary part of maintaining momentum in the strategic partnership.
US Bungling on Afghanistan
The confusion surrounding the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha last week meant Secretary Kerry had his work cut out for him in trying to explain US strategy in Afghanistan to his Indian interlocutors.
The US administration blundered in its handling of the Taliban political debut. In rushing a US delegation to Doha to meet with the Taliban leadership without the presence of the Afghan government, the Taliban appeared to be achieving its long-sought objective of cutting the Karzai administration out of the talks.
The Taliban also scored a public relations coup by raising its flag in front of the office. The episode angered Afghan President Hamid Karzai so much that he pulled out of the Bilateral Security Agreement talks with the US, thus fulfilling another Taliban goal of driving a wedge between the US and Afghan governments.
It is unclear why Washington would have agreed to meet separately with the Taliban. The US Ambassador to Afghanistan sought to clean up the mess on Thursday by declaring that a condition for talks was Taliban willingness to engage with the Afghan High Peace Council.
Some of Kerry’s statements in New Delhi helped smooth the bumps created by the Doha fiasco. Kerry made clear that talking with the Taliban was not the focal point of US policy in Afghanistan, even as the US was willing to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
Kerry was firm that such a solution would require the Taliban to break with al-Qaeda, renounce violence, and accept Afghan constitutional protections of women and minorities. He also called for an Indian role in preparing the way for credible Afghan elections scheduled for next April.
India has significant stakes in Afghanistan and is understandably wary of the US attempts to negotiate with the Taliban. Indian officials believe the US - desperate to strike a peace deal before its troops depart - might allow Pakistan to play a driving role in the talks.
Pakistan has long relied on the Taliban to serve as its proxy for maintaining influence in the country. And the US has seen how allowing Pakistani strategists to have their way in Afghanistan led to the development of the Taliban-al-Qaeda nexus that facilitated the 9/11 attacks. It would be foolhardy for the US to go down a similar path in 2013, especially when so much US blood and treasure has been invested in the country over the last 11 years.
It is important that the US and India consult more closely on Afghanistan. They share the long-term objective of stabilising the country and ensuring it never again serves as a safe haven for global terrorists. At the same time, the US should try to avoid making Pakistan feel cornered, and seek to facilitate economic and political links between Islamabad and Kabul.
For its part, Pakistan must be willing to squeeze the Taliban and Haqqani network and pressure them to compromise for peace in the region.
Defence, Nuke ties take Low Priority
Kerry spent little time on the issue of US-India defence cooperation. While giving a nod to the idea of co-production and co-development of defence systems, he failed to flesh out a course forward in Indo-US military ties.
Perhaps that’s because New Delhi has shown lacklustre interest in deepening the defence relationship. While some US defence contracts are moving forward, New Delhi still relies on Moscow for most if its military needs, especially sensitive military equipment.
Large segments of the Indian population and bureaucracy remain suspicious of US strategic intentions and thus object to strengthening Indo-US defence ties. It is up to Indian leaders to explain the benefits of greater Indo-US defence cooperation and to convince the skeptics that long-held suspicions of US power are unmerited.
The American rebalance toward Asia will serve India’s own fundamental security interests. Kerry raised the need for the two sides to finalise the proposed joint venture between Westing-house and the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) for the construction of a nuclear power plant in Gujarat.
Westinghouse and NPCIL a year ago signed a preliminary pact to negotiate an Early Works Agreement to construct the plant. India’s passage of legislation nearly three years ago that contained language inconsistent with international standards for engaging in nuclear commerce complicated US companies’ ability to invest in India’s civil nuclear sector.
The passage of the legislation angered US officials that went to tremendous lengths to convince a skeptical international community of the merits of the civil nuclear deal. Finalising the commercial agreement between Westinghouse and NPCIL that would allow preliminary work to be done in areas of licensing and site development would at least keep alive the hope that American companies will eventually be permitted to participate in India’s nuclear energy sector.
Biden visit next opportunity
Fortunately, US Vice President Joe Biden’s planned visit to India in late July provides another opportunity for the US to highlight and lay out fresh proposals for regional security and defence cooperation. But before Vice President Biden makes any grand strategic gesture toward India, he will have to be assured of Indian reciprocation. Otherwise, we can expect the relationship to remain safely on its current plateau.
- Lisa Curtis, Senior Research Fellow with The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Deccan Chronicle