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Mainstream, Vol. XLVIII, No 38, September 11, 2010

Nine Years On: India’s Strategic Hot Potato

Friday 17 September 2010, by S G Vombatkere

September 11, 2001. The world stood aghast at the real-time TV screening of the audacious, coordinated attack on the WTC and Pentagon and trembled when, weeks later, the USA invaded Afghanistan in retaliation to what was under-stood as an Al-Qaeda attack under the leadership of Osama bin Laden. This was first seen as a knee-jerk reaction to retrieve American pride and prop up the USA’s international image, but soon enough the world interpreted it as a strategic move to gain a secure foothold in Asia. This interpretation was confirmed when the USA subsequently defined it as a global war on terror (GWOT) and invaded Iraq to execute “regime change” there.

The USA’s global strategic interests are by now well-defined, and the shocks delivered to Afghanistan and Iraq have been integrated into the way in which the world views the USA. US President Obama’s recent commitment of with-drawing US troops from Iraq is nothing but outsourcing warfare and corporatising conflict, since “combat operations” by troops becomes “stability operations” by US-paid mercenaries operating out of US bases in Iraq to maintain hold on the ground. The USA’s military-industrial complex still appears to predicate US global strategy.1

USA’s Strategic Partners

PETER ZIEHAN writes: “The war began in the early morning hours—Pakistan time—after the September 11 attacks. Then US Secretary of State Colin Powell called up then Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to inform him that he would be assisting the United States against Al-Qaeda, and if necessary, the Taliban. The key word there is ’inform’. The White House had already spoken with—and obtained buy-in from—the leaders of Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Israel and, most notably, India. Musharraf was not given a choice in the matter. It was made clear that if he refused assistance, the Americans would consider Pakistan part of the problem rather than part of the solution—all with the blessings of the international community.”2

At that time, New Delhi was somewhat relieved that the USA had at last become aware of cross-border terrorism (though sadly at the cost of many lives and a slap in the face by a “mere” terrorist outfit which outwitted the world’s premier intelligence agency) of which India had been complaining for years. But Pakistan being the long-time seed-bed for terror attacks against India and then becoming a strategic partner of the USA, and that too for the GWOT, made New Delhi’s complaints somewhat ineffective. New Delhi, under a Congress-led UPA Government with known “Americanophiles” at the top of the pile, was possibly miffed that the USA had taken Pakistan as a strategic partner, and lost little time in cosying up to the G.W. Bush Administration, going so far as to say words to the effect that India loves G.W. Bush.

Thus it came to pass that in Washington in July 2005, Indian PM Manmohan Singh and US President G.W. Bush issued a Joint Statement on a framework agreement for India-USA civilian nuclear cooperation that came to be known as the 123 Agreement. However, this N-deal was overshadowed by the provisions of the Hyde Act enacted by the US Congress in January 2006, which is an India-specific legislation (titled “Henry J. Hyde United States-India Peaceful Atomic Energy Cooperation Act of 2006“) that visualises India having a foreign policy “congruent with” that of the USA, and actively participating in the USA’s efforts to implement sanctions against Iran if that country fails to conform to the USA’s checks on its acquisition of N-weapons. While certainly India was not bound by the Hyde Act, it is necessary to understand that the provisions of that legislation were part of the USA’s foreign policy to bring as many countries as possible under its influence, if not control, for its global designs. Thus, notwithstanding New Delhi’s protestations to the contrary, the 123 Agreement overshadowed by the Hyde Act was in fact nothing less than a strategic convergence between India and the USA. Indeed, following this, there have been several Army, Navy and Air Force joint exercises between India and the USA with the stated aim of enhancing military cooperation and inter-operability.

India as USA’s junior Strategic Partner

TO emphasise the fact of it being a wide-spectrum strategic tie-up, it needs to be noted that the nuclear framework Joint Statement was issued on July 18, 2005, and on the same day, the Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture (KIA) Agreement was finalised and the KIA Working Group formed. And just two days later, on July 20, 2005, the KIA Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed by Indian PM Manmohan Singh and US President G.W. Bush. It is left to conjecture whether India was being railroaded into a strategic linkage with the USA.

On March 3, 2006, US President G.W. Bush was in New Delhi, and he and PM Manmohan Singh signed the Joint Statement on India-US Strategic Partnership with emphasis on civilian nuclear cooperation, but including the KIA. This came to be known as the Indo-US Nuclear Treaty, which raised a furore in Indian politics and nearly caused the UPA Government to fall when the Left parties withdrew their support. It is noteworthy that by this time, the Indian and US KIA Boards had already met twice: on December 15, 2005 in Washington and on February 13, 2006 in New Delhi. And days after the Indo-US Nuclear Treaty was signed, the Third KIA Board Meeting was held in Washington, on March 6, 2006, showing that the KIA Agreement was well underway.

It is not out of place to note that the USA’s KIA Board gives official status to US seed and food MNCs like Archer-Daniels-Midland, Monsanto and Walmart since their representatives are US KIA Board members, while the Indian KIA Board has full representation of industrial interests with the sole “representative” of the agricultural sector being Dr M.S. Swaminathan. The purpose of highlighting this time-line is to show, firstly, that the Indo-US Nuclear Treaty was the Trojan Horse with the little known and even less debated KIA Agreement (which gives free rein to US MNCs and impacts India’s food security) in its belly, and secondly, that the strategic tie-up was carried out with political stealth. Of course, with the MNC-friendly provisions of the nuclear accident liability bill, it is clear that for the USA at least, the nuclear deal was meant to resuscitate and hugely benefit moribund US nuclear corporations. In sum, India is locked in a strategic embrace with the USA, a fact internationally well recognised.


INDIA has ancient and modern cultural and economic ties with Afghanistan. New Delhi’s interests in Afghanistan also coincided with undoing Pakistan’s influence there, and the US invasion was a convenient excuse to upgrade its “soft power” and regain its former strategic depth. However, at present Indian presence there is opposed by the Taliban and Pakistan because New Delhi supported the 10-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan which was opposed by the USA’s CIA-inspired Taliban trained in Pakistan.

The US occupation of Afghanistan post-9/11 placed Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan in a subordinate position relative to its earlier dominant position following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989. This, along with the India-US strategic partnership and the USA’s happy acceptance of India’s role in Afghanistan, led to New Delhi providing monetary aid for Afghanistan and actively assisting in infrastructural construction and reconstruction by sending manpower.

It should be clear to any perceptive observer of Afghanistan that the rules of the contemporary “Great Game” imposed by the USA in Afghanistan would last only so long as the US military has a presence in that country. Even though New Delhi knew the history of the impossibility of subjugating the fiercely independent tribal people of Afghanistan, as the British and Soviets know at their cost (never mind the cost paid by the Afghans), the inevitable withdrawal of the USA from Afghanistan was apparently not considered when New Delhi jumped into Afghanistan with both feet. Thus, New Delhi as the USA’s strategic partner, went ahead to help Afghanistan with monetary investment—while people starve at home and there is no money for education and health, India pledged to invest $ 1.2 billion, becoming the second largest contributor of funds after the USA—and also sent Indians to undertake construction work in the face of attacks by the Taliban. India’s Kabul embassy is its largest in the world and India has rebuilt two previous and opened two new consulates in Afghanistan. All this shows India’s level of commitment to “rebuild” Afghanistan and maintain an enhanced diplomatic presence; predictably, this has enraged Pakistan.

India’s Investment in Afghanistan

NEW DELHI’S investment in Afghanistan in construction and reconstruction work is not inconsiderable. Border Roads Organisation engineers and Indian military personnel have been airlifted to construct roads and other infrastructure such as a new Parliament House, erecting power transmission lines and a sub-station to supply Kabul with 24x7 power, building the 218-km Zaranj-Delaram highway, sinking tubewells in six provinces, running sanitation projects and medical missions, lighting 100 villages with solar power, and building a dam. In addition, India has given three airbus aircraft to Afghanistan’s Ariana airline and offers scholar-ships for studies in India to young Afghans. All this may add up to cost New Delhi around $ 1.2 billion—a huge amount considering that India’s internal development suffers at least partly due to lack of funds.

The Afghan Hot Potato

WHEN the USA begins to consider withdrawing its military from Afghanistan, it is obvious that Pakistan will strenuously endeavour to regain its former influence, and it follows that India would be forced into a difficult position due to its considerable investment in Afghanistan being at stake. The position may not be unlike a man putting a hot potato into his mouth—he cannot chew or swallow it and he cannot spit it out either; and it burns his mouth. New Delhi appears to have already acquired the hot potato by its involvement in Afghanistan, and may put it “into the mouth” when US troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

To put a finer point on the matter, some questions need to be asked: Will India be able to withstand the combined might of Pakistan, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda on its own in Afghanistan? Will it be worthwhile to pump Indian troops into Aghanistan at enormous cost in order to “save face” and protect Indian interests in Afghanistan? If so, for how long would India remain committed militarily in Afghanistan and, more importantly, will there be an exit policy? Or will New Delhi pull out of Afghanistan a tad earlier than the USA does (at the risk of displeasing its senior strategic partner), and write off its huge investment in Afghanistan as a financial misadventure?

The die is cast; the act is committed. Now only time will tell; but the tale it will tell will surely be an unhappy one. Either way, it will have huge repercussions at home.


1. Vombatkere, S.G., “The US War Machine—Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, Mainstream, New Delhi, Vol XLVIII No 17, April 17, 2010, pp. 25-30.

2. Ziehan, Peter, “Three Points of View—The United States, Pakistan and India”, Stratfor Global Intelligence, April 28, 2010; points_view_united_states_pakistan_and_india

Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General Discipline and Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. He has over five years service in the Border Roads Organisation in the high altitude of Ladakh. Settled in Mysore, he is Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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