U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel
The just confirmed U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s comments about India treating Afghanistan as a “second front” against Pakistan need to be treated with detached self-assurance.
A video obtained by the conservative media outlet Washington Free Beacon shows a recording of Hagel’s 2011 address to Oklahoma’s Cameron University.
In the video that can be seen here, Hagel speaks about India in the context of Afghanistan and Pakistan and makes the following points:
“So there is some history where Afghanistan and Pakistan have similar interests. But mainly, they have not had similar interests. India is the other piece of this.”
“India for sometime has always used Afghanistan as a second front and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border — and you can carry that into many dimensions.”
The comments have caused diplomatic kerfuffle with a spokesperson of the Indian embassy in Washington telling this to the Free Beacon in an email: "Such comments attributed to Sen. Hagel, who has been a long-standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-US relations, are contrary to the reality of India’s unbounded dedication to the welfare of the Afghan people."
Hagel’s bit about India having “over the years financed problems for Pakistan” is clearly egregious but other than that it is an undeniable reality that Afghanistan is a sort of second front for India against Pakistan. Diplomatic rectitude may not permit a lot of people to acknowledge this simple fact of India’s regional statecraft. It is unquestionably in India’s strategic interests to maintain a strong presence in the Afghanistan beyond U.S. troops withdrawal in 2014. India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan are significantly defined by Pakistan.
What is objectionable is Hagel’s direct assertion that India has “financed problems for Pakistan”, which can only mean that New Delhi has materially sustained ferment in Pakistan from its northwestern border. This has the potential of playing into Islamabad’s narrative that post-U.S. withdrawal India is determined to maintain a strategically choking position from that border. For its part, Pakistan considers Afghanistan as a territory which would provide it useful strategic depth against India. A friendly dispensation in Afghanistan or, at the very least, the one that is compelled to be friendly by various means of statecraft, is very important for Islamabad. It would be churlish for India to deny that Pakistan has a greater interest in Afghanistan once the U.S. leaves.
New Delhi, in its wisdom, has rightly concluded that the way to the Afghan heart is via its reconstruction. India is financially invested in Afghanistan in a substantial way through its various reconstruction dollars. It is possible that India is motivated more by geostrategic exigencies than just pure neighborly altruism. To that, I say so what? Equally, it is a fact of history that India and Afghanistan have enjoyed robust and longstanding ties which are independent of the immediate strategic calculations. Whichever way one looks at it, India is a natural fit for Afghanistan.
Washington is acutely aware that China is a huge factor in the post-2014 Afghanistan, in no small measure also because of the latter’s vast mineral wealth. However, the United States would rather depend on India to play the role of the regional stabilizer.
If Hagel continues to maintain the views he expressed barely two years ago—and there is nothing so dramatic that has happened in the interregnum to alter them—then there is urgent need for President Barack Obama to moderate them.
India, on the other hand, must not be coy about its direct strategic interests in Afghanistan and must make it clear it would do everything to pursue them. Of course, financing ferment is not part of doing everything. That said, all major nation-states do as a matter of routine keep all options, including creating ferment, open. There is no more compelling example of that than America, whose defense secretary Hagel now is. It would be useful for him to engage New Delhi early in his tenure if he wants to see a successful draw-down of his troops from Afghanistan.
It is almost guaranteed that whenever he chooses to engage his Indian vis-à-vis he would be uncomfortably reminded of his 2011 comments. Unless, of course, he chooses to clarify them right away. Speaking of clarification, how does one get out a direct quote that India has financed problems for Pakistan? It would be so much more honorable for him to say that he does indeed believe that to be the case and face the consequences. The best India can/should do in the short-term is to enjoy his discomfiture.