The single biggest message conveyed by the use of the so-called “mother of all bombs” by the United States in Afghanistan last Thursday is that the war is about to be intensified – militarily as well as in the political and diplomatic arena.

India has to take some difficult decisions. And they need to be taken quickly.

The regional tour itinerary of the United States National Security Adviser HR McMaster includes Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

The itinerary comes as a pleasant surprise, because despite the great bonhomie between Delhi and Washington in the Barack Obama era, when it came to Afghan war, Americans continued to be cagey about identifying with India lest it annoyed Pakistan, which was despite the hiccups in the USA’s relations with that country. Pakistan, nonetheless, has remained its irreplaceable non-North Atlantic Treaty Organisation partner in the region.

One cannot recollect a previous instance of a US president deputing his NSA to undertake a highly consequential “Afghan mission” by visiting New Delhi alongside Pakistan in a single loop.

Conceivably, Delhi establishment will read meaning into it – and, rightly so – by estimating that with this US “recognition”, India has “arrived” on the Afghan chessboard.

So, it becomes important to analyse why the US is elevating India’s profile as a protagonist in the Afghan war.

HR McMaster with Donald Trump. Image credit: Reuters
HR McMaster with Donald Trump. Image credit: Reuters

McMaster’s Afghan mission

This would necessitate taking a closer look at what McMaster’s Afghan mission is really about.

President Donald Trump was delightfully vague when he disclosed, during a joint press conference with the visiting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House on April 12 that he was deputing McMaster to Afghanistan.

“The Secretary General (Stoltenberg) and I had a productive discussion about what more NATO can do in the fight against terrorism. I complained about that a long time ago and they made a change, and now they do fight terrorism. I said it was obsolete; it’s no longer obsolete. It’s my hope that NATO will take on an increased role in supporting our Iraqi partners in their battle against ISIS. I’m also sending General McMaster to Afghanistan to find out how we can make progress alongside our Afghan partners and NATO allies.”

Evidently, McMaster is tasked with the mission to assess whether the current stalemate in the Afghan war, which is working to the advantage of the Taliban, can be broken, and if so, what needs to be done.

Trump has a tricky decision on his hands – whether to beef up the US troop presence in Afghanistan, and, if so, to what extent and for how long.

Interestingly, last Wednesday while urging the NATO to play “an increased role” in Iraq, Trump voiced no such opinion with regard to Afghanistan.

Delhi must carefully take note that Trump is primarily focusing on Iraq and Syria as the “frontline states” in the fight against the ISIS, with Yemen and Libya much lower down in priority, and Afghanistan ranking still below that.

This prioritisation is logical because ISIS is a chimera in the Hindu Kush and is far from acquiring habitation and a name and, secondly, Afghanistan no longer threatens America’s “homeland security”.

On the contrary, Iraq, Syria, Libya – these are war zones from where droves of refugees keep arriving in Europe.

All in all, we are in a time machine circa 2003-2008 when Iraq had surged as the theatre of the US’ “war on terror”.

Meanwhile, the US commander in Afghanistan General John Nicholson has asked for a “few thousands” additional troops. Trump is agonizing over the decision.

The expert opinion is that, perhaps, with a quarter of a million troops, the tide of the Afghan war could be reversed over time. At present, the US deploys 8,400 troops to Afghanistan. Put differently, what is in the works is a holding operation to see that Kabul somehow retains control of the 60% of Afghan territory which it is currently holding on to.

What is there in it for India?

To be sure, McMaster has a listening brief and would also have a “wish list”. Trump is obsessive that the US’ wars should be “self-financing”. McMaster will probe what India can do.

One way could be by rendering development assistance, which India is already doing generously. A second way could be by India contributing to the “capacity-building” of Afghan armed forces, which is also happening.

McMaster is unlikely to press for Indian arms supplies for Afghan forces. The US’ long-term strategy is to make the Afghan army “inter-operable” with the NATO forces.

It requires that the Afghan army should use American weapons. The US is pressuring the Afghan army to reduce even its traditional dependence on Russian weapons.

The big-ticket item in McMaster’s check list will be whether India can give budgetary support to the Afghan armed forces, which need around $4 billion annually to pull on.

The government needs to take a view. Effectively, McMaster will be interested to know how far India can bankroll the war.

It is a tough call, because India will be bankrolling the US and NATO-led war. This will be a recurring financial expenditure, too.

For a start, the Indian establishment should know what it is that the US hopes to achieve out of this war.

Clearly, induction of a “few thousands” troops cannot win the war. It can only slow down a Taliban victory.

At some point, the US will have to resume the efforts to reconcile the Taliban. When that point comes, would Delhi have a say in the terms of the settlement?

However, McMaster isn’t going to be able to guarantee anything in that direction.

The bottom line, therefore, is that India should decide what advantage lies if it gets on the bandwagon with Trump at this juncture.

Arguably, it may be best for India to keep all options on the table, as the Americans are fond of saying.

The Russian angle

Suffice it to say, what brings McMaster to Delhi is primarily the fear that India may choose to align with the Russia-led regional initiative on Afghanistan.

The US views Afghanistan through the prism of the New Cold War with Russia. From the US perspective, the military bases in Afghanistan are simply non-negotiable.

It is a high stakes game and the US hopes that at some point the Taliban can be persuaded to drop its pre-condition on ending the western occupation.

Trump’s expectation will be that China may use its influence on Pakistan to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table by reviving the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (which comprises Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and US).

If the US-China deal on North Korea forged at the recent Florida summit makes headway (which seems to be happening), Trump will look for a similar deal with President Xi Jinping over Afghanistan.

Trump has no aversion toward the One Belt One Road initiative and China welcomes American participation in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. A Sino-American congruence over the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is also entirely conceivable.

Most importantly, the US has always been inclined toward tapping China’s influence in South Asia to strengthen regional security and stability, and, in particular, to resolve India-Pakistan differences and disputes.

Delhi must be clear-headed about the geopolitics of the Afghan war. India’s interests are best served in a regional initiative on Afghanistan, where it can hope to exert some degree of influence, rather than the QCG exclusively negotiating a settlement behind closed doors via a US-Chinese-Pakistani congruence.

The good part is that Pakistan seems to be willing to work within the regional framework initiated by Moscow, with India being part of the proceedings. The bad thing is that in the near term McMaster may exploit India-Pakistan tensions to erode the gravitas that the regional initiative is steadily acquiring.