President Barack Obama visits India this weekend amid high expectations for the future of the U.S.-India relationship. Yet of the many issues that will be on his plate -- civil nuclear cooperation, counterterrorism, China, Pakistan, and all the rest -- one that has received very little attention is the foreign-policy issue that today transfixes Washington: the war in Afghanistan.
That needs to change. With the clock ticking down on the war and with the Afghan government and security forces plainly unable to handle matters on their own, the United States should take a new look at what India could contribute to stability in Afghanistan. Obama should use his visit to talk specifics with the Indians about leveraging their support in pursuit of success there. Such a conversation must begin, however, with the understanding that, though the United States and India share nearly identical interests in Afghanistan, they remain opposed on the best way to achieve those interests.
Both the United States and India wish to avoid the re-emergence of a sanctuary in Afghanistan for terrorists with international reach. Both want to stem the destabilizing effect that insurgent success in Afghanistan would have on Pakistan and the wider region. And neither would like to see a superpower defeated at the hands of Islamist extremists, which would provide a major boost in recruitment and financing for the global jihadi movement. These shared interests translate into a series of mutual objectives -- to defeat the Taliban, help build the capacity and legitimacy of the Afghan government, and aid the country's reconstruction.
But then the differences emerge. India has generally believed that embracing Afghan President Hamid Karzai is best; the Americans have blown hot and cold. Obama's policy is to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011; Indian officials have decried the existence of a public withdrawal timetable. Washington sees Pakistan, despite its many complications, as an inevitable piece of the solution in Afghanistan; India invariably views Pakistan as a part of the problem. Indian policymakers think that talks with the Taliban are pointless at best and dangerous at worst; U.S. officials appear willing to test the idea in order to hasten an acceptable conclusion to the war in Afghanistan. And so on.
That's not to say that India is standing by idly. New Delhi has committed more than $1.2 billion in aid to Afghanistan since 2001, making it the sixth-largest donor to the country, and has provided funds for education, health, power, telecommunications, infrastructure, and food aid. It has constructed Afghanistan's new parliament building, built roads, and is erecting a dam in Herat. Several thousand Indians are on the ground in Afghanistan engaged in development activities, and India maintains four consulates (in Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Mazar-e-Sharif) in addition to its embassy in Kabul. It is developing Iran's Chabahar port, which could provide a sea outlet for Indian trade with Afghanistan, and an air base across the border in Tajikistan.