|JULY 29, 2021 | VIEW IN BROWSER|
|By Michael Kugelman
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Afghanistan takes on more importance in U.S.-India relations, India’s monsoon season turns deadly, and a horrific murder sparks debate about domestic violence in Pakistan.
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The Afghanistan Factor
Shared concern about China is the core driver of the U.S.-India partnership, but in recent months, other priorities have intervened. When Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar visited Washington in May, COVID-19 cooperation was the main focus. Now, it’s Afghanistan.
This week, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to India, where his meetings covered a variety of topics: U.S. Indo-Pacific policy, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue—known as the Quad, the pandemic, and climate change. Blinken also addressed civil society leaders with a focus on India’s democratic backsliding—an indication the Biden administration isn’t afraid to engage on issues New Delhi would prefer it avoid.
But Afghanistan undoubtedly loomed large over the visit, given the central focus the U.S. withdrawal occupies in the Biden administration’s South Asia policy and India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan-focused regional diplomacy. It figured prominently in Blinken’s meetings and in his public comments during the trip.
U.S. and Indian interests align on many levels, but they differ on Afghanistan. Biden’s decision to fully withdraw will ultimately strengthen the Taliban, which have attacked Indian interests and nationals. The fragile U.S.-sponsored intra-Afghan dialogue also intends to produce a political settlement that gives the Taliban a share of the power. That outcome would advantage Pakistan, the Taliban’s ally and India’s rival. (Afghanistan hasn’t had a pro-Pakistan government since U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001.)
India has invested heavily in Afghanistan, including granting $3 billion in development assistance since 2001, and has enjoyed close ties with all post-Taliban governments. But India now worries Pakistan and China, its two main rivals, will fill the vacuum left by the United States and deepen their influence. This week, Beijing hosted a visiting Taliban delegation.
India has shifted its policy in recent weeks. In June, New Delhi sought to open formal communication channels with the Taliban for the first time, becoming the last major regional player to do so. It has also widened its engagement with the Afghan political class. India wants to gain more influence by expanding its links beyond those in government. This week, ThePrint reported New Delhi is “engaging with ‘all stakeholders’ to the Afghan situation, which includes the Taliban.”
As C. Raja Mohan wrote in Foreign Policy this week, India is also increasing its participation in Afghanistan-focused regional diplomacy, most recently through its involvement in conferences in Central Asia. This is welcome news for the United States: Most of Afghanistan’s neighbors are either U.S. rivals, such as China, Iran, and Russia, or difficult partners, such as Pakistan and Turkey. The Biden administration wants its friends to play more of a role in shaping a so far elusive regional consensus on the way forward for Afghanistan.
This isn’t to diminish the importance of other issues discussed during Blinken’s visit to New Delhi. With India fearing another COVID-19 surge, U.S. pandemic assistance remains critical; Blinken announced an additional $25 million in aid. China-focused cooperation is also still essential. India and the United States each faced recent cyberattacks blamed on China. Both countries are keen to maintain momentum with the Quad; Washington may host a meeting of leaders in September.
Finally, U.S.-India differences on Afghanistan won’t melt away anytime soon. Concerned Indian leaders likely asked Blinken about the U.S. policy of close cooperation with Pakistan on Afghanistan-related issues. Pakistan’s national security advisor and head of its main spy agency arrived in Washington for a visit on Tuesday. Ultimately, Pakistan’s large role in the Afghan peace process and China’s growing influence may limit India’s options.
Nevertheless, the stars are aligned for more U.S.-India cooperation on Afghanistan. The United States is pushing for more regional engagement at a moment when India—one of Afghanistan’s only neighbors with cordial ties with Washington—is stepping up its game.
Read all of Foreign Policy’s coverage of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan here.