Touted as a visit with an emerging economic power, U.S. President Barack Obama’s trip to India in November will also be about how New Delhi deals with that elephant in the room – the Pakistan-Afghanistan conundrum.
After nine years of war, there are signs the United States and President Hamid Karzai are reaching out to talk to the Taliban, and New Delhi wants to ensure any eventual settlement protects India from the risk of militant groups on its doorstep.
That could mean India reaching out for regional initiatives to ensure a stable Afghanistan, including closer ties with Iran and Russia — all Afghan neighbours worried about the Taliban in their backyard – if Washington cuts and runs.
“There is a realisation in India that the United States is not going to preserve your interests. You are going to have to,” said Srinath Raghavan, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi.
“India is looking more at having an insurance policy in Afghanistan rather than playing an active role”
India and the United States largely see eye to eye over a range of issues as the former Cold War ally of the Soviet Union increasingly turns to the West. The two may see their interests diverge over Afghanistan, although it is little threat to wider ties, as Obama’s trip — his longest presidential trip to any one country — shows.
India is Afghanistan’s biggest regional aid donor and its $ 1.3 billion of projects, from building a parliament to a highway to Iran, shows how New Delhi seeks to counter the Taliban.
Washington has been happy to see that aid, but not its ally Pakistan, India’s archrival and fellow nuclear power, especially the Pakistan military which sees Afghanistan as its own backyard.
“India thinks that the U.S. is placing too much reliance on Pakistan in Afghanistan, and it’s not to be trusted,” said Walter Andersen, a former U.S. State Department official now at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
He said Obama could take advantage of India’s rivalry with Pakistan to pressure Islamabad to do more on Afghanistan. “I’ve often wondered why he didn’t do it earlier,” Andersen said.
What India fears most is a return to the 1990s, when the Pakistan-backed Taliban’s rule coincided with a spurt in cross-border militant attacks in India, and a sense that militants could act with impunity in the region.
India has already blamed Pakistan for a “proxy war” in Afghanistan that in recent years has seen a car bomb attack on the Indian embassy.
The trouble for India is knowing exactly what Obama plans to do in Afghanistan – when will troops be withdrawn, or how many? What influence could the Taliban have in any peace settlement ?

Reporting by Anthony Solomon, Bridget Gallagher; Editing by Bernd Pulch and Kim Halburton

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