India Positioning To Fill Post-US Vacuum in Afghanistan

From economic development to training Afghan security forces, expect India to be a big player after 2014.

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U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh before the leader's dinner at the Nuclear Security Summit at the Coex Center, in Seoul, South Korea.

New Delhi's ambassador to Washington made clear Friday that India is positioning itself to fill a vacuum that will be created in 2014 when most U.S. and western troops leave Afghanistan.

From a range of economic development projects to training Afghan security officers to combating a Taliban resurgence, Nirupama Rao says India intends to prevent "a regression in Afghanistan to the situation it was before 2001."

India and other nations in southeast Asia "have a stake in peace, stability, and prosperity" in Afghanistan, Rao said during a forum in Washington. "Afghanistan does represent a security challenge for us."

During talks in India this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged Indian leaders to take on a larger role in Afghanistan's future.

Nancy Powell, U.S. ambassador to India, applauded a recent announcement that Afghan security forces would be trained by Indian officers on Indian soil. In a typical diplomatic move, Powell sought to downplay the development—which could anger India's primary rival, Pakistan.

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"I think it's not a significant, huge decision," Powell said, noting U.S. and Afghan officials believe the Afghan security personnel "can benefit from training inside India."

The forum came ahead of a high-level U.S.-India strategic conference, slated for Wednesday in Washington.

Among the topics that will populate a jammed agenda for the talks will be ongoing efforts to combat Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Some experts and media reports have described Washington and New Delhi as taking diverging views about how to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear arms. But Rao countered such skepticism by saying she sees no "fundamental divergences on Iran" between American and Indian leaders.

Later, however, Rao opted against answering a question from a forum attendee about India's plans on purchasing Iranian oil, a key driver of India's massive energy needs.

To be sure, Rich Verma and Michael Werz of the Center for American Progress, in a report released Friday, called Indian purchases of Iranian oil among several outstanding "consequential issues simmering" between Washington and New Delhi.

India imports 80 percent of its oil, with 12 percent originating in Iran, according to the CAP report. But that level in recent years has been on a downswing, CAP found: In 2009, India took in 22 million tons of Iranian crude; this year, the think tank projects that figure will fall to about 16 million tons.

The European Union is set later this month to formally enforce tight sanctions on Iranian oil imports. U.S. and European officials want nations that remain dependent on Tehran's oil, like India, to buy from other oil exporters.

Indian officials, however, have thus far been reluctant to do so. Indian refiners in May slashed imports of Iranian oil by 38 percent from the same month in 2011, according to media reports from the region that cited tanker discharge data.

Some U.S. national security experts, however, are urging Indian leaders to do more in an effort to hit the regime in Tehran where it hurts most: the wallet. The idea is oil sanctions and lost business could cajole Iranian leaders into giving up their atomic arms program.

"India should also find a way to make more formal its commitment to reduce its imports of Iranian crude oil," the CAP analysts wrote. "These steps would be a big confidence builder in both capitals," they added, referring to Washington and New Delhi.

The two ambassadors were quick to note that even as Washington and New Delhi continue what has been a sometimes-bumpy effort to forge closer ties, the two global giants won't always see eye-to-eye.

"People who expect the United States and India to be in lockstep," Powell said, "have no appreciation of our independence."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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