The “horses for courses” mantra of the US foreign policy is badly hurting India’s strategic and security interests in Afghanistan today. But India’s External Affairs Ministry, headed by S. Jaishankar, who got the job because of his perceived intimacy with the US and the capability to swing favourable deals for India, is silent in order to keep up the pretence of a ‘happy marriage’ with the world’s leading superpower.
Despite multiple requests before and after the fall of Kabul on 15 August, the US denied New Delhi a diplomatic outpost inside Kabul airport — considered the safest place in Afghanistan as it is still under US control — for stationing a core team of Indian officials. The US happily accommodated the UK, France, Germany and other NATO countries, but cited a space crunch to keep India out.
Even as it decided to shutter its embassy, India was desperate for a perch under the protective American umbrella. But the US didn’t relent, resulting in a complete Indian withdrawal with no mission or men left in Afghanistan.
India Is Useful Only to Counter China
Evidently, India is useful to America only in the Indo-Pacific region as a key member of the coalition of democracies, including Japan and Australia —known as the Quad — led by the US for countering China. It’s another matter that the quadrilateral alliance established as a counterweight to China is in reality an acknowledgement of China’s military and economic might. It’s an admission by the four that they are not individually capable of taking on China and have therefore pooled their resources to fight their common enemy.
Anyway, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the US arms imports bill has shot up and the two militaries have signed so many interoperability and intelligence-sharing pacts that Washington has designated India as a Major Defence Partner (MDP), primarily to sell us more sophisticated and costly weapons.
India’s loyal media gave the MDP tag a twist, declaring that the US has granted India the much higher status of a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA). It wanted to project India as a key strategic ally of the US, such as Japan and Israel, which, of course, is not the case. But MDP India certainly is since 2016. The 2+2 Dialogue between the Foreign and Defence Ministers of India and the US was established in 2018 to fast track bilateral and military cooperation. We created an impression that the oldest and largest democracies were the world’s fastest-growing strategic partners.
Washington Chose Pakistan over India
But when it came to Afghanistan, Washington chose Islamabad, which, incidentally, is still an MNNA, to deliver the Taliban; the US kept India out of the Doha talks, guided by its “horses for courses” policy. Importantly, Russia, upset with India for buying US arms and reducing Russian weapons exports to India, also kept India out of the Moscow talks. Cold-shouldered by the US and Russia and targeted by China and Pakistan, India clung to the stuttering Afghan government only to be sidelined, marginalised and ultimately elbowed out in a major foreign policy debacle.
My information is that only National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval proactively countered the US betrayal. Doval spent four days in Kabul in January, advising Ashraf Ghani to defy the US State Department, which had ordered him in writing to step down for the implementation of a power-sharing agreement with the Taliban. Doval told Ghani to insist on a ceasefire instead, which would halt the Taliban’s territorial advance and give Afghan forces time to regroup.
Doval didn’t oblige the US by advising Ghani to abdicate. Doval’s pushback strengthens the belief that patriotic and upright Indian intelligence officers handle the US better than diplomats. Ex-NSA M. K. Narayanan’s role in safeguarding India’s interests before the signing of the civil nuclear deal with America is another instance of intelligence officers showing spine.
Why Does India Need US Crutches?
It was prominently reported how the officiating Ambassador of the US in India, Atul Keshap, directly contacted Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, the top US military commander at the Kabul airport, to give priority to Indian diplomats and nationals. But publicising US assistance is an admission of the complete collapse of New Delhi’s power and influence in its own backyard. India has for long claimed that Afghanistan is within its zone of influence. But the abject dependence on the US projected by the media demolishes such claims.
If India is so dependent on US crutches in its neighbourhood, does it deserve to be considered for permanent membership of the UN Security Council that it’s clamouring for? India’s vulnerability is also at odds with Modi’s projection of India as the ‘Vishwa Guru’ (Universal Teacher) of the 21st century.
New Delhi’s image suffered another blow when it requested the US, the UK, Germany, France, Qatar and the UAE to evacuate Indians working for them in Afghanistan to those six countries, from where New Delhi would bring them to India. It shows that India is incapable of evacuating its own citizens and is banking on other nations to fly them to safety.
Of late, instances that show that India is not a priority for the US are growing. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited in July, there were expectations that he would announce the date for an in-person meeting of the heads of states of Quad nations in Washington. That would have also set the stage for a Modi-Biden summit, which the Indian PM is naturally looking forward to. A meeting with Biden would boost Modi’s image, currently dented by the mismanagement of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and India’s failure to supply vaccines to neighbouring countries after hefty advance payments. But Blinken made no such announcement, leaving New Delhi heartbroken.
The New 'Quad'
Last month, Washington announced a new connectivity “Quad”, which directly hurts India’s interests. The US-Uzbekistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan grouping is establishing a trade corridor running from Tashkent to Pakistan’s Gwadar and Karachi ports. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is engaged in trial runs of container convoys on the route. Importantly, it bypasses the Chabahar port in Iran, in which India has big stakes, thus making it increasingly unviable. The US is also prodding Uzbekistan to use Bandar Abbas and not Chabahar if it must use an Iranian port.
The US is so disinterested in doing business with India that Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal made a public announcement last week that a long-overdue trade pact with the US is off the table. Goyal’s announcement and the denial of a diplomatic outpost at the Kabul airport for a small core team of officials show that Washington is not interested in doing business with India, both literally and figuratively.
However, the US is perhaps being immature, short-sighted and unfair to India. Post-August 31, it must rope in New Delhi as its proxy in the sensitive Afghanistan-Pakistan region it is retreating from after conceding defeat. The US has obviously struck deals with Pakistan and the Taliban to protect US interests in a region hemmed in by its three adversaries — Russia, China and Iran. But India, with proper US backing, can bring a lot to the table.
(SNM Abdi is a distinguished journalist and ex-Deputy Editor of Outlook. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)