“We Need India’s Help In Afghanistan”

(op-ed with Marshall M. Bouton), Forbes.com.  November 24, 2009.

What Obama should keep in mind during Manmohan Singh’s visit.

In the prolonged American debate over Afghanistan, the country best positioned to increase civilian assistance has not been mentioned: India. When it comes to Afghanistan, India and the United States have convergent interests as well as complementary capabilities. Formalizing our work together would deepen India’s stake in a durable regional solution, and its strong civilian-side capabilities would enhance the developmental effort for the long term. As President Obama ponders our direction in Afghanistan, he should use Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Washington this week to engage India as a central player in the tough, uphill battle to secure South Asia.

Delhi and Washington view the challenge of stabilizing Afghanistan the same way. Both consider the Afghan insurgency and terrorism it spawns their most pressing national security challenge, and neither wants to see a Taliban-led government return. Both understand that failure will bring even greater dangers to their own doorsteps. Indeed, the growing instability in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a front-line concern for New Delhi, which does not want to see Mumbai, or any other city, again in flames.

In addition to their military efforts to secure Afghanistan, the United States and NATO have struggled to ramp up economic assistance–the “build” part of counterinsurgency. Unfamiliar cultures and languages and harsh conditions have constrained Western capacity on the ground. As a practical matter, American NGOs have not been able to function outside major population centers in Afghanistan for two decades. Outsourcing to Beltway contractors is not cost-effective, and NATO has been unwilling or unable to help fill the gap.

But India has demonstrated unique and effective capabilities that will make a big difference in Afghanistan. With its historic ties and cultural affinity to the country, India has already provided impressive civilian assistance. It is the fifth-largest bilateral donor to Afghanistan. India’s $1.2 billion contribution to date has supported projects in power, medicine, agriculture and education. Afghanistan’s new parliament meets in a building constructed by India. Indian engineers built a port-access road in violent southern Afghanistan, and India has trained Afghan civil servants, demonstrating an Indian comparative advantage on the ground.

Deeper cooperation in Afghanistan would invest India with a broader stake in the effort to stabilize South Asia. In the process, India will take on a more committed leadership role in Afghanistan’s future and emerge a more willing supporter of regional efforts to ensure a peaceful outcome. Engaging India in a more regular, formal and wide-ranging dialogue on the challenges in Afghanistan–wholly different from the ad-hoc and inconsistent consultation at present–would transform the way we work together, propelling the U.S.-India relationship to a new level of trust. The proposal to create a larger contact group of neighboring countries, including India, was contained in the Riedel report approved by the Obama administration earlier this year–but has not been implemented. At present, Delhi is standing warily aside, concerned that it will be asked to act unilaterally in ways that conflict with its own interest.

India’s potential impact on Afghanistan’s development may prove greater than NATO’s, or our own. Afghanistan’s economic development will require very long-term capacity building work, and India has the ability to make a key, and very efficient, contribution for many years to come. Take agriculture. United States Agency for International Development and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been charged with improving agricultural technologies and markets so that Afghan farmers will no longer seek profits from poppy. But India’s agricultural research and extension organizations know much better how to bring about change under subsistence farming conditions.

On the “software” that makes institutions function, India has led the way with civilian assistance training, including through bringing Afghan civil servants to Delhi. India’s trainers have knowledge and expertise better suited for Afghanistan’s situation, and their work with Afghan bureaucrats, judges, teachers, nurses and engineers should be expanded. India could also be helpful with the critical task of training Afghan police on a wide range of law enforcement matters.

Of course, a broader partnership with India in Afghanistan will be bitterly criticized across the border by some who believe that India threatens Pakistan’s security and seeks to “encircle” it. Washington should not validate this perception when our own leadership believes it incorrect, and in that conviction has urged Pakistan to free up forces from the Indian border and deploy them along the al-Qaida-Taliban front to the west. In fact, no evidence suggests that Delhi seeks to undermine Pakistani interests through involvement in Afghanistan–unless those interests include supporting the Taliban and other radicals. If anything, given our own hope for a secure and stable Pakistan, greater coordination with India should reassure Islamabad by making India’s goals more transparent, and should also help reduce tensions between India and Pakistan over time.

With Prime Minister Singh’s arrival in Washington, President Obama has the opportunity to move U.S.-India relations even further toward its promise of strategic partnership. The Obama-Singh summit can infuse fresh purpose and energy to an India-U.S. relationship much transformed over the last decade but still vulnerable to mistrust, especially in matters of South Asian security. A partnership for Afghan development and security–where India can provide the kind of help Afghans, and the international community, need most–is just the place to start.

Marshall M. Bouton is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, and Alyssa Ayres is director for India & South Asia at McLarty Associates. Both served on the Asia Society’s Task Force on U.S. policy toward India.