Like John F. Kennedy, Barack Obama Recognizes India’s Increasingly Pivotal Geopolitical Role

US President Barack Obama’s visit to India is an unprecedented second visit by a serving president and reflects his determination to court India. It recalls the earlier courtship of another young US president, John F Kennedy, who also put improved relations with New Delhi at the core of his foreign policy. Like JFK, Obama finds his effort constrained and hindered by America’s complex relationship with Pakistan.

Obama has recognised India’s increasingly pivotal geopolitical role since the start of his presidency. Just days after his election, the attack on Mumbai, 26/11, highlighted the common threat India and America face from global jihad. The President sent his central intelligence director to India just weeks after his inauguration to improve counter-terrorism cooperation. His first state visit and state dinner at the White House was for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He travelled to India in 2010 and paid his respects in Mumbai to all the victims of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) attack.

Striking a Balance

Last September, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the White House. Going to New Delhi for Republic Day is an unprecedented symbol of the importance Obama and Washington focus on India. India is pivotal to every issue that matters for America today, from climate change to nuclear arms control to balancing the rise of China. There is wide bipartisan support for courting India.

Ahalf-century ago, JFK also made India a centrepiece of his presidency. During his campaign for the presidency in May 1959, he gave a major speech on India and China, in which he said the rivalry between democratic India and communist China for leadership in Asia was the defining conflict of the Cold War and that “we want India to win that race”.

He hosted Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 and planned a visit to India for 1964, a visit that never came due to his assassination. Economic aid increased significantly and after the Chinese invasion in October 1962 — at the height of the Cuban missile crisis — the US airlifted arms to hold back the Chinese. In 1963, the US carried out a major air force exercise in India with Britain and Australia to deter any further Chinese aggression.

Obama probably will not face a crisis as serious as the Sino-Indian 1962 war in his final two years. But his efforts to improve bilateral relations will be hindered by the same problem that hindered Kennedy: America’s conflicted relationship with Pakistan. Like Kennedy, Obama inherited a large economic and military aid relationship with Pakistan from his predecessor. The Eisenhower administration had poured hundreds of millions of dollars in aid into Pakistan to make it a front line state in the Cold War. The George W Bush administration poured in billions in aid to fight al-Qaeda.

In both cases, the new administration was rightly sceptical the money was producing a reliable ally, but was reluctant to cut off the aid. Kennedy grew to doubt Pakistan would use its US-supplied arms against the Soviets or China. Obama rightly doubts Pakistan is a reliable foe of al-Qaeda, especially since he found Osama bin Laden hiding in the front yard of the Abbottabad military academy.

In 1962, Kennedy’s most serious challenge during the Sino-Indian war was to keep Pakistan from opening a second front against India. Pakistani President Ayub Khan told Kennedy he wanted “compensation” from India in Kashmir for neutrality during the war. Kennedy made it clear to Ayub that no such compensation would be tolerated. After the war ended, JFK did encourage Indian-Pakistani talks on Kashmir, but refused to pressure Nehru when Ayub put outrageous demands on the table. Instead, he increased military aid to India, aid that would prove critical in the 1965 Indo-Pakistani war.

Focus Afghanistan

Obama’s critical challenge in South Asia is Afghanistan, ensuring a transition to a stable government in Kabul that can defend itself against the Taliban and prevent al-Qaeda from rebuilding its sanctuaries. The main patron of the Taliban is the ISI and the Pakistani army. Mullah Omar enjoys his safe haven in Karachi.

The ISI also provides support to LeT for its attacks in Afghanistan, like the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat last May on the eve of Modi’s inauguration.

The challenge for Obama and Modi is how to ensure the Taliban-ISI conspiracy to restore the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is thwarted. It was here that 9/11 was planned and executed. It was in the same emirate that the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight IC814 was planned and executed. Washington and New Delhi share a common interest in not letting the Taliban recover control of most of Afghanistan.

Modi should increase India’s presence and role in Afghanistan. India has trained some Afghan police and provided generous economic aid, especially in building highways, to reduce Afghan dependency on Pakistan to have access to the Indian Ocean. It should provide more help to the Afghan army, especially to the air force that has been dangerously underdeveloped by Nato. This effort should be coordinated with the US and Nato.

Kennedy appreciated India’s pivotal role in the world’s future in the 1960s. More than 50 years later, India still plays that pivotal role. Obama is right to travel to New Delhi again. There is much work to be done.

This piece was originally published by The Economic Times.