Narendra Modi comes to Washington just as America is once more gear- ing up for war in
the Middle East. In theory, the
Islamist extremism now so brutally manifest in Syria and Iraq
could provide the glue to cement
ties between New Delhi and
Washington. But theory, like
reality, frequently defies our
Like the United States, India
has been the repeated victim of
terrorism carried out by individuals and groups wrapping themselves in the mantle of Islam. But
a shared anxiety about Islamist-fueled violence has notably failed
to unite the United States and
India in the years since 9/11. For
one thing, India, with a large
Muslim population, has not
wanted to join America in a fight
that many see as a war against
The recent declaration by Al
Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
of a new South Asian Al Qaeda
affiliate underscored the potential dangers for India, even if al-Zawahiri’s announcement may
be more aspirational than fact.
The Islamic State, the militant
outfit operating in Syria and Iraq
and responsible for Obama’s
stepped-up military efforts in the
Mideast, has already been
recruiting fighters in India and
Still, there’s no guarantee that
Modi will find US bombing of
extremists in Iraq and Syria fundamental to his own political agenda. The new Indian government is as leery as its predecessors of too close an identification with the exercise of US military power. It would be
astonishing if Modi publicly associated himself with
American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
Indeed, heightened hostilities in the Middle East could
distract Washington officialdom from giving US-India relations the continual attention and priority they require – and
deserve. This, in fact, appears to have happened as recently
as Secretary of State John Kerry’s July visit to Delhi.
According to some knowledgeable observers, Kerry’s Indian
hosts were seriously put out by Kerry’s frequent delaying of
meetings because he was on the telephone about the ongoing crisis in the Mideast.
Nonetheless, the two countries, if hardly ‘natural allies’ (a
characterization first used by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the last
Bharatiya Janata Party prime minister), do harbor similar
fears about a resurgent Islamist threat.
Take Afghanistan, for instance. As the US combat mission there ends later this year, New Delhi will share
Washington’s concern lest the security environment in
Afghanistan deteriorate and the Taliban reassert control
over portions of the country. Foreign Secretary Sushma
Swaraj visited Kabul earlier this month, where she promised that ‘India is here to stay.’ India would always be
Afghanistan’s ‘first strategic partner,’ she added, although it
is not clear what precisely this pledge means.
In recent years, under the previous Manmohan Singh
government in Delhi, India has become one of
Afghanistan’s largest international donors. Indian aid over
the past year surpassed $2 billion. The Modi government
seems set to continue this substantial level of support.
Much of this aid has been in the areas of reconstruction,
economic assistance, and development support. But
recently India and Afghanistan have been discussing augmented security assistance, including training, equipment,
and funding for the Afghan security forces.
The Obama administration should welcome a greater
Indian role in supporting the Afghan army and police.
Indeed, Washington and New Delhi should coordinate their
security assistance to Afghanistan and talk more substantively about the full gamut of Afghan-related security issues.
This would pay dividends not only in the fight against the
Taliban, but also in getting US and Indian defense officials
accustomed to working together.
In the past, concerns about aggravating Indo-Pakistani
tensions have led Delhi to shy away from a large security
role in Afghanistan, a reticence that both the Bush and
Obama administrations, fearful of alarming Pakistan, have
applauded. Indeed, Pakistan – as a source of Muslim terrorism directed at India but also as a victim of Islamist
extremism – remains an impediment toward closer Indo-American cooperation in the global struggle against the
Delhi has long been angered by what it sees as American
‘coddling’ of Pakistan in the face of irrefutable evidence of
Pakistani involvement in numerous acts of terrorism target-
ing India. Successive Indian governments have resented
Washington’s insistence that Pakistan is and must be a part-
ner in the global war against terrorism, and the remarkably
high levels of US military assistance to the very Pakistani
security forces that are behind much of the terrorism India
has suffered both before and since the 9/11 attacks on the
Although Modi, in an action not fully supported by his
domestic political allies, invited the Pakistani prime minister to attend his swearing in ceremonies in Delhi last May,
relations between the two long-time adversaries have more
recently turned frosty again. There have been repeated
instances of firing across the contested boundary separating
the Indian and Pakistani portions of Kashmir. Last month,
following a meeting with Kashmiri separatists held by
Pakistan’s top diplomat in Delhi, India canceled foreign sec-retary-level talks that had been seen as a step toward easing
Washington and Delhi are not likely to agree on much
regarding Pakistan. But unless the two are more successful
than they have been in the past in negotiating the hurdle
posed by Pakistan, they are unlikely to find that the common threat of Islamist extremism will knit the two countries, and especially their military and security agencies,
into a close partnership. Modi’s visit to Washington should
provide an opportunity to begin this process.
Like Obama, Modi entered office with an agenda focused
on economic growth and domestic reform. Like Obama,
foreign policy was well down on his agenda. And like
Obama, he will surely find that foreign affairs will intrude,
whether he wishes it or not.
Islamist radicalism could serve to draw Modi and Obama
together. Or it could underscore the differences in the
national interests and perspectives of their two countries.
It will be up to these two leaders, one freshly sworn in, the
other eyeing the end of his time in office, to close ranks
against the purveyors of hatred, and thus to demonstrate
that Vajpayee’s ‘natural allies’ formulation isn’t simply an
Robert M Hathaway recently retired after serving 15 years as
Asia program director at the Woodrow Wilson Center in
Washington, DC. He is now a Wilson Center Public Policy
Obama’s new war, but is it Modi’s?
Islamist radicalism could draw
Modi and Obama together or it
could underscore their differences,
says Robert M Hathaway
‘The Islamist extremism now so brutally manifest in Syria and Iraq could provide the glue to cement ties between New Delhi and Washington... The recent declaration by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri of a new South Asian Al Qaeda affiliate underscored the potential dangers for India, even if al-Zawahiri’s announcement may be more aspirational than fact.’
India Abroad October 3, 2014
THE MAGAZINE M23