March 2, 2013

Hagel in a Teacup

The following op-ed originally appeared in The Indian Express on March 2, 2013.

There are two narratives in Washington concerning India’s involvement in Afghanistan. According to the first, India is locked in a proxy conflict with Pakistan, supporting anti-Pakistan elements on both sides of the Durand Line. The logical conclusion for Americans who espouse this view is that a diminished Indian presence in Afghanistan would assuage Pakistan’s insecurities, generate trust and increase regional stability. The second narrative is that India is intent on state-building initiatives in Afghanistan in line with American efforts, in order to support Hamid Karzai’s government and preserve regional stability. According to this line of reasoning, Indian efforts in Afghanistan should be encouraged by Washington, which should also treat Pakistan’s manufactured or exaggerated concerns with scepticism.

The first narrative has long been dominant in the US capital and has been steadily advanced by Pakistani officials, who have used it to generate sympathy and concessions. President Barack Obama seems to have held this view at one point, as did the late Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. The 2011 remarks by newly confirmed Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, which recently sparked outrage in New Delhi, are simply another articulation of this assessment. It may have been ill- informed, misleading and potentially dangerous for Indian, Afghan and American interests, but Hagel’s old statement and the controversy it generated in India offer an opportunity for introspection.

Much of the commentary in India over the past few days has assumed that Hagel’s assessment was informed and strongly biased. But to portray him as inherently anti-India misses the point. During his long Senate career, Hagel has often sided with India on important issues. He was a proponent of the Indo-US civil nuclear deal and voted in favour of that agreement’s enabling legislation. But Hagel’s exposure to India was always limited, and like many American policymakers of his generation, he never viewed the country as a priority.

There could not be a sharper contrast than with his familiarity with Pakistan’s regional security concerns. Hagel once told me that the Pressler amendment, the US legislation that imposed sanctions against Pakistan upon its acquisition of nuclear weapons, was a mistake because it complicated cooperation with the country following the 9/11 attacks. “For eleven years,” he lamented, “relations with [Pakistan’s] officers were lost.” His reading of events mirrored the version propagated by Islamabad. It overlooked the fact that the Pressler amendment stemmed from a Pakistani initiative, as a clever means of avoiding sanctions while continuing to pursue its clandestine weapons programme during the 1980s.

The bottom line is that Hagel’s worldview was coloured by his frequent interactions with Pakistani military and civilian leaders. While Islamabad has been extraordinarily successful in advancing its narrative in this manner — engaging leading American policymakers even when they are not in positions of influence — India has often fallen short in this regard.

Fortunately, we can expect Hagel’s views to change now that he has been confirmed by the US Senate as the country’s top defence official. The Pentagon has already said that Hagel is “strongly committed” to the US-India strategic partnership. In the Pentagon, Hagel has access to far more intelligence than he did even as a senior legislator. He bears partial responsibility for the security of remaining US forces in Afghanistan, a heavy burden. And he will be working closely with his deputy, Ashton Carter, the designated point person for driving defence relations with India.

A more important aspect of Hagel’s worldview from India’s standpoint may well be his overall attitude toward the exercise of American power. A Republican, Hagel fell out with many members of his party by speaking out strongly against the US intervention in Iraq. He has regularly emphasised the unintended consequences of US actions and the constraints on American power, which will be reinforced by expected cuts to the defence budget. He is fond of citing a quote by former President Dwight Eisenhower: “let no one think that the expenditure of vast sums for weapons and systems of defence can guarantee absolute safety for the cities and citizens of any nation.”

For India, an American worldview that places a priority on what Obama likes to call “nation-building at home” at the expense of power projection is cause for concern. India is comfortable with a strong US presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and American retrenchment generates uncertainty and invites revisionism. Yet Hagel, Obama and newly minted Secretary of State John Kerry all seem to prefer a more modest exercise of American power. As Indian officials begin to engage with Hagel and Kerry in their new capacities, their overall approach to India’s wider neighbourhood, rather than a single line in an old speech, ought to be made the real priority.