Would a U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan Drive India Into China’s Arms?

“As the United States and China become great power rivals, the direction in which India tilts could determine the course of geopolitics in Eurasia in the 21st century,” writes renowned journalist Robert Kaplan in a paper titled South Asia’s Geography of Conflict. It was commissioned by the Center for a New American Security, for which he serves as a senior fellow. CNAS, of course, is known for its advocacy of COIN, the “counterinsurgency” or ostensible nation-building strategy followed by the United States in Afghanistan. Kaplan continues.

But even as the Indian political class understands at a very intimate level America’s own historical and geo­graphical situation, the American political class has no such understanding of India’s.

Kaplan then details how critical geography has been in determining the course of history for India, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan. As a result . . .

Only in the Western view is Afghanistan part of Central Asia; to Indians it is very much part of the subcontinent. Afghanistan’s geography makes it central not only as a principal invasion route into India for terror­ists in our day as for armies in days past, but also as a strategically vital rear base for . . .

. . . Pakistan, which . . .

. . . from the historical perspective of India . . . constitutes much more than a nuclear-armed adversary, a state sponsor of terrorism and a large, conventional army breathing down its neck on the border. [In fact, its location makes it] the very geographical and national embodiment of all the Muslim invasions that have swept down into India throughout its history.

Worse, according to Kaplan . . .

. . . an Afghanistan that falls under Taliban sway. . . . would be, in effect, a greater Pakistan, giving Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) the ability to create a clandestine empire composed of the likes of Jallaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Lashkar-e-Taiba. . . .

The quickest way to undermine U.S.-India relations is for the United States to withdraw precipitously from Afghanistan. [It] would sig­nal to Indian policy elites that the United States is surely a declining power on which they cannot depend. Detente with China might then seem to be in India’s interest. . . . Put simply, if the United States deserts Afghanistan, it deserts India.

Kaplan’s use of the word “deserts” may confirm your worst suspicions about this “ex-travel writer who has been transformed into a geo-political thinker and amateur imperialist,” as respected libertarian commentator Leon Hadar once called him. After all, in 2006 Kaplan wrote, “I was once a supporter of the invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein. . . . I cannot disavow my earlier support, because it was also based on firsthand experiences in Iraq. To know a totalitarian regime abstractly is different from knowing it intimately.” If he can’t be blamed for seeking to bring down Saddam, he and others like him can be for their failure to understand that, to the Bush administration, that was just a pretext to assert its wider Middle-East agenda.

The reader, then, can’t be faulted for his or her concern that, for his part, Kaplan is using the geography and history of the Asian subcontinent as a justification for the United States to remain in Afghanistan. In fact, though, he doesn’t argue for a particular course of action. Instead, he writes:

I do not suggest that we should commit so much money and national treasure to Afghanistan merely for the sake of impressing India. But I am suggesting that the deleterious effect on U.S.-India bilateral relations of giving up on Afghanistan should be part of our national debate on the war effort there, for at the moment it is not.

One would like to think that a solution exists which doesn’t require the presence of our military in Afghanistan. Ideally, too, it would include discontinuing, rather than compounding, U.S. triangulation (or a zero-sum game — take your pick of clichés) with India and China.