- The Washington Times - Friday, November 5, 2010

Fears about a premature U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan have created tension in the United States’ relationship with India and reinforced the Pakistani military’s strategy of supporting terrorist groups in the region, Sen. John McCain said on Friday.

“Afghanistan has become a major source of tension between the U.S. and India for the primary reason that India does not believe that we will stay until the job is done,” Mr. McCain said in a speech at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Arizona Republican said it was important for the U.S. to address this concern head-on.

Mr. McCain spoke just before leaving for a trip to Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Describing the U.S. relationship with Pakistan as one in which broader strategic interests are not entirely aligned, Mr. McCain said nothing the United States has done since Sept. 11, 2001, has changed the basic strategic calculus of the Pakistani army.

“When compelled, it is willing to fight terrorist groups that threaten Pakistan, but not related groups that threaten Afghanistan, India and increasingly America as well,” he said.

The senator said some in Pakistan’s army and intelligence service continue to support these terrorist groups as a tool of influence. “A belief that America will withdraw prematurely from Afghanistan has only reinforced the Pakistani military’s inclination to hedge its bets,” he added.

The Obama administration will conduct a review of its policies in Afghanistan in December.

Mr. McCain said if the U.S. quits Afghanistan “before positive conditions can be shaped and sustained on the ground, the consequences will certainly be terrible for us but they will be even worse for India, which will have a terrorist safe haven on its periphery.”

He said such a situation would deepen India’s reliance on Russia and Iran, which would damage the U.S.-India relationship.

“I can think of few more immediate ways to damage the U.S.-India relationship and to convince India that the U.S. is both a declining power and unreliable partner than for us to pull out of Afghanistan before achieving our goals,” Mr. McCain said.

In a conference call with reporters this week, Robert D. Blackwill, who served as ambassador to India in the George W. Bush administration, said India is extremely anxious that the U.S. will forge a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials say reconciliation and reintegration efforts with the Taliban in Afghanistan are an Afghan-led process and to qualify terrorists must lay down their arms, cut ties to al Qaeda and abide by the Afghan Constitution.

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, recently told reporters that no “high-level” talks were taking place with the Taliban.

But, he added, “there has been an increase in the number of people who have fought with the Taliban who have been reaching out, picking up the phone metaphorically or literally and calling up people and saying, ‘I’ve had enough of this war. I’d like to talk to you.’ “

Mr. McCain described the emergence of a strategic partnership with India as “one of the most consequential, bipartisan successes of recent U.S. foreign policy.”

President Obama traveled to India on Friday for a trip that includes visits to Mumbai and New Delhi.

Expectations have been high in New Delhi that the president will endorse India’s bid for a permanent seat on an expanded United Nations Security Council.

Mr. McCain said the U.S. should support India’s bid. “If we want India to join us in sharing the responsibilities for international peace and security, then the world’s largest democracy needs to have a seat at the high table of international politics,” he said.

While Britain, France and Russia have supported India’s bid for a permanent seat, the U.S. and China are the two permanent members of the Security Council that have not.

India’s relationship with China has been fraught with tension.

China is building deepwater ports suitable for military purposes in countries surrounding India and India’s neighbors are some of the largest recipients of Chinese arms. China and India also have a long-running dispute over borders.

Mr. McCain echoed growing concern in New Delhi about encirclement of India by China.

“It is not difficult to understand why many Indian strategists and leaders, including [Indian] Prime Minister [Manmohan] Singh, see in these actions a Chinese effort to surround India and weigh down its rise to global power with persistent local problems,” Mr. McCain said.

The U.S. and India, too, have their share of differences, specifically on Iran and Burma.

Mr. McCain said India should do more to ensure democracy flourishes in both countries.

“Ultimately, Iranians and Burmese will reclaim their countries and when they do they will remember who was on the right side of history,” he said.

Burma will hold its first election in 20 years on Sunday in which the ruling military is expected to consolidate its grip on power. The opposition National League for Democracy is boycotting the vote and its charismatic leader Aung San Suu Kyi remains under house arrest.