Opinion

India: America's indispensable ally

Washington will need New Delhi's cooperation on a host of critical issues, so the Obama administration must not risk neglecting the relationship.

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Presidential terms are a marathon of effort, but the Obama administration has started with a full sprint. Between the financial crisis and events in Afghanistan, Iran, Russia, and elsewhere, it's had to. But in rushing ahead to confront one crisis after another, it risks forgetting an crucial friend: India.

At a time when so much of the broader Middle East and South Asia is in disarray, it may be tempting to put India – an ally and friend of the United States – on the back burner. But it is precisely because India is a friend and ally, and because of the severity of regional and global problems, that the US needs to nurture this relationship. If President Obama is to achieve many of his ambitious foreign-policy objectives, he will need to forge an even stronger relationship with India – and that will take work.

As things stand, however, Washington's bandwidth for India seems to be overwhelmed by concerns about its neighbors to the west, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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That's understandable. As a candidate, Mr. Obama made clear that more attention and resources needed to be paid to Afghanistan; and on this there is broad consensus not just within the United States, but with friends and allies, and with the Afghans themselves.

After taking office, both he and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton very quickly affirmed that events in Afghanistan and in Pakistan are, for the moment, resolutely tied together. And so came the appointment of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, one of America's strongest negotiators and diplomats, to be the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan and Pakistan have been tied together – they're now known as AfPak – and elevated as a priority at the Defense Department, too. As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee Jan. 27, Afghanistan is the "top military overseas priority."

Meanwhile, at the National Security Council (NSC), word has it that portfolios are in flux, and geographic responsibilities may shift to reflect the US Combatant Commands. If this holds true, AfPak would be lumped together with Middle East affairs – and India would fall into a Pacific/East Asian category.

Why does this matter?

Because if the State Department, Pentagon, and NSC all come to see AfPak as the central issue in South Asia – while moving India into another realm entirely – then Washington will have severed a crucial regional link, one it desperately needs.

To stabilize Afghanistan, Washington must work to stabilize Pakistan, which some experts warn could become a failed state. And it will be hard to stabilize either one without India. Given the rivalry between India and Pakistan, not least over Kashmir and Afghanistan, India's role is essential.

India is important for other reasons, too.

Climate change, one of President Obama's top priorities, cannot be addressed without it. So far, India has resisted sharp carbon-cutting efforts, which it worries could limit economic growth. The US will need great diplomacy to persuade it otherwise.

Energy security too, will need India's participation, whether it's in protecting the Strait of Malacca (through which a substantial percentage of world oil flows) or improving efficiencies and developing new technologies in areas such as solar energy.

Stopping nuclear proliferation, combatting terrorism, protecting sea lanes, and interdicting weapons of mass destruction are four other sensitive global issues that will require Washington's close cooperation with India.

India has the third-largest Muslim population in the world, and at the same time, it has a burgeoning relationship with Israel. This makes India an especially strong candidate – along with Turkey – to help bring peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

With Iran too, India has oft declared its willingness to act as a middleman, given their longstanding relationship. Likewise, if it comes to stronger sanctions against Iran, it will be necessary to bring India on board, a very difficult task given its vast energy and strategic needs.

India has made it clear that it doesn't wish to be a US counterweight to China. But it is also apparent that India's and America's interests regarding China are quite closely aligned: Both parties are looking to steer China on a positive path. India may not be a counterweight, but it could be a strategic partner to the US.

It's not an exaggeration to say that, for many of the most vexing problems Washington faces, India has become the indispensable nation. Obama's team would be wise not to forget it.

Xenia Dormandy is an associate with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School and a former director for South Asia with the National Security Council. Her views are her own.

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