Obama Won't Hear Cheers in India on Afghanistan Policy

Indian artist Jagjot Singh Rubal finishes a painting of Obama in preparation for the president's visit. Indian artist Jagjot Singh Rubal finishes a painting of Obama in preparation for the president's visit. Prabhjot Gill/AP

One of the few times President Obama received bipartisan applause in his State of the Union address was when he boasted that "our combat mission in Afghanistan is over." But when he arrives in New Delhi this weekend, he won't hear any cheers for the pullout.

Instead, Obama will encounter considerable anxiety and much concern over the future among India's leaders. It is why, when he isn't marching in a parade or visiting the Taj Mahal or doing the other symbolic events that dominate his trip schedule, he will need to reassure Prime Minister Narendra Modi that America isn't about to abandon South Asia or the Indian subcontinent.

There are other issues on the agenda, including climate change, defense cooperation, terrorism, immigration, and nuclear liability. But it is Afghanistan that will demand the most hand-holding.

The backdrop—as always in India—is how the U.S. pullout affects the country's longtime enemy, Pakistan. The Indians see Pakistan harboring terrorists who up to now have been focused on crossing into Afghanistan to fight American troops and support the Taliban. But they fear terrorists will now feel free to refocus on fighting India.

"They're extremely concerned about that," said Richard Rossow, an India expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "That certainly is at or close to the top of the list." The Indian public, Rossow said, is "concerned that America's drawdown in Afghanistan will release militant groups in Afghanistan, and India's concern is that that will result in more cross-border terrorism on themselves."

Indians are also frustrated by what they see as the episodic nature of American interest in their region, experts say. They remember when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan and, New Delhi believes, Washington seemed to stop caring about South Asia.

"India would like the U.S. to stay and stay in large numbers," said Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution. She said there was "quite a bit of heartache" when Obama first announced a timeline for withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. "There was a sense that it changed the dynamics in the region."

Madan said Indians believe that "as long as the U.S. has some amount of troops that it will remain interested. They think that without a U.S. presence there, there will be instability in the region, that Pakistan will have more influence.... They think things will be worse without the U.S. there."

Additionally, New Delhi worries that it has wasted $2 billion in development aid for Afghanistan. India is proud to be the largest donor of such aid but now sees those projects "under threat or likely to be under direct threat if the Taliban come back in good force," Madan said.

Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, told reporters that the president will use his time with Modi to assure the Indians they will not be abandoned just because the troops are coming home.

"In Afghanistan, where Americans have sacrificed so much, India is a major contributor to development assistance in support of the Afghan government," Rhodes said. "We need to maintain that cooperation going forward now that the U.S. has drawn down our military presence. It's all the more important that there is broad support from the international community, including India."

He said counterterrorism cooperation "will be a focal point" of the Obama-Modi talks. Both countries have strong intelligence operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan but have looked for ways to improve intelligence-sharing. Also, it is important for Obama to send a message about the right kind of terrorist threat. While there is concern in India about ISIL's recruiting of Indians to be fighters, India wants to hear the president talk more about terrorists in South Asia and in Pakistan.

Rhodes indicated the president is aware of that, insisting that the U.S. battle against ISIL "doesn't lessen our vigilance in South Asia."

The president is scheduled to arrive in New Delhi early Sunday morning. That day, he will hold talks with Modi, take questions from reporters, and attend a State Dinner. Monday is the ceremonial high point, as Obama will march in the Republic Day parade, commemorating the adoption in 1950 of the constitution making India an independent nation. As Modi's guest of honor, he will then review the rest of the parade, a Soviet-style marshaling of military weaponry and tanks. Later, he and Modi will focus on U.S.-Indian commercial ties at a CEO roundtable and CEO summit. On Tuesday, the president will deliver the major speech of the trip in New Delhi before going to Agra for the obligatory stop at the Taj Mahal before returning to Washington.

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