Will Manmohan Singh influence Obama’s Afghan strategy? (News Analysis)

Washington, Nov 27 (Inditop.com) Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s assertive counsel to stay the course in Afghanistan or risk “catastrophic consequences” under an emboldened Taliban could play a decisive role in President Barack Obama’s final determination about his new strategy in the region.

It is more than likely that the prime minister’s warning in his interviews preceding the just concluded state visit here was a carefully calibrated move to ensure that the Obama administration seriously factors in India’s views in their long-term strategy.

In an interview with Newsweek, Singh said, “A victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan would have catastrophic consequences for the world, particularly for South Asia, for Central Asia, for the Middle East. Religious fundamentalism in the ’80s was used to defeat the Soviet Union. If this same group of people that defeated the Soviet Union now defeats the other major power [America], this would embolden them in a manner which could have catastrophic consequences for the world at large.”

He followed that up with this comment during his interactions with policy wonks at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). “The road to peace on Afghanistan will be long and hard. But given the high stakes involved, the commitment of the international community must be sustained by firm resolve and unity of purpose,” he said.

The comments could have well come from some hardliners in the Republican Party, including perhaps even former vice president Dick Cheney, who has been a strident critic of what he calls the new president’s “dithering” on Afghanistan. In that sense Manmohan Singh’s standpoint unwittingly converged with some of Obama’s most vehement detractors and against his core constituency of liberal Democrats who want him to withdraw from the country at the earliest.

In a city where a serious policy can start off with a rumor here and a speculation there, there was some talk of whether the Indian side was in a sense encouraged to take a tough approach over Afghanistan so as to facilitate the president’s break from his earlier approach with relatively manageable political risk. One comment among those hanging around at Hotel Willard, where Manmohan Singh stayed, went something like this: “If an independent and respectable figure like Dr. Singh were to make the case in support of staying the course in Afghanistan, it might help President Obama to present the case with greater credibility to his skeptical liberal constituents. To that extent Manmohan Singh is an ideal stakeholder to push for staying the course.”

Not that there was any obvious connection but during his joint news conference with Manmohan Singh, Obama said “After eight years – some of those years in which we did not have, I think, either the resources or the strategy to get the job done – it is my intention to finish the job”. This was followed by reports quoting his aides that he would probably add 30,000 more troops.

This ought to have been music to the Indian ears, especially because New Delhi has gone out on a limb in Afghanistan having invested over a billion dollars in reconstruction. If the Obama strategy is going to be aimed at ensuring long-term stability by engaging in large-scale reconstruction of a new Afghan state, then India’s role is going to be crucial.

There is growing realization in Washington about the constructive influence of India in Afghanistan even as there are strong voices of apprehensions that disapprove of it. Washington has to be sensitive to Pakistan’s vociferous rejection of any decisive presence of India in Afghanistan. Many in Pakistan have already advanced the familiar argument of being squeezed in by India from two sides. From the Indian standpoint, it is a region it must not let itself be eased out of. There are specific geostrategic reasons for India to be part of Afghanistan’s present and future.

The prime minister did try to address Pakistan’s concern during his address at the CFR saying, “We do not see Afghanistan as a theatre of influence. Our interest is in building a region of peace and stability.”

While that may be completely true it does not necessarily reveal the full measure of India’s interest.