US wants India to play more active role in Afghanistan
US defense secretary Leon Panetta will encourage India to take a more active role in Afghanistan as international forces draw down after a decade of war, US officials said as the Pentagon chief arrived in New Delhi for two days of talks. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, acknowledged the longstanding rivalry between India and Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan but insisted that both countries had an interest in working with the international community to ensure stability in their northern neighbour.
“There is a risk that the tensions and historical mistrust between India and Pakistan could lead them to view their respective roles in Afghanistan as being in conflict,” one official said. “This is not predestined. This does not have to be the case.” Pakistan wields considerable influence over neighbouring Afghanistan, while India is already one of its biggest bilateral donors, having pledged about $2 billion since the 2001 US led-invasion for projects from the construction of highways to the building of the Afghan parliament.
In October, India and Afghanistan signed a wide-ranging agreement to deepen ties, including to help train Afghan security forces, a deal that angered Pakistan. “India and Pakistan share an interest, the same interest that we have, of peace and stability in Afghanistan,” the official said. “That makes Pakistan more peaceful and stable and it makes India a lot more stable.” Their remarks came as Panetta flew to India as part of his week-long Asia tour to explain a new U.S. military strategy to allies and partners in the region. The strategy calls for a shift in U.S. focus to the Asia-Pacific region.
Panetta announced on Saturday during a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a security conference in Singapore, that the U.S. military would rebalance its military assets so that by the year 2020 60 percent of U.S. warships would be in the region, versus 50 percent now. The officials said the United States views India as a logical partner to work with on security and stability issues in the Indian Ocean region and that India was singled out for its importance in the new strategy.
Panetta is expected to elaborate on that theme during his meetings with senior defence and political leaders, as well as in a speech at a think tank. India has a long history of involvement in the country and its activities have often been viewed suspiciously by Pakistan, which is concerned about being diplomatically encircled by its longtime enemy. India has trained Afghan army and police over the past decade, but on a relatively small scale, the U.S. officials said. It has also increasingly helped Afghanistan with its economic reconstruction, the officials said.
“As we look to the future development of peace and stability in Afghanistan … we know that the regional actors, Afghanistan’s neighbours and extended neighbours like India will play a greater role,” one official said. “That’s historically been the case in Afghanistan and that’s going to be the case again. And we welcome that.” The official said the United States would like to see “all of the neighbours, including Pakistan and India, harmonize their approaches because they do share an interest in peace and stability in Afghanistan.”
The two sides will also discuss their military cooperation, including weapons and training needs. “We believe that it’s very important, again, to help India modernize its capabilities and develop its military capabilities so it can be a net provider of security in the region and internationally,” the official said. The United States is keen to get a bigger slice of India’s defence acquisitions, and is negotiating to sell it about a dozen Apache helicopters along with other weapons.