Washington, Oct 5: US Defence Secretary James Mattis has said that India's decision not to send troops to war-torn Afghanistan was perhaps guided by the Pakistan factor. Mattis praised India's contributions to Afghanistan's development before lawmakers at House Armed Services Committee, saying New Delhi has adopted a holistic approach in its assistance towards the country.
"It is really a very holistic approach that India is taking. You'll notice I left off (Indian) boots (soldiers) on the ground because of the complexity that would bring to Pakistan," Mattis said yesterday in response to a question from Congressman Doug Lamborn during the Congressional hearing on South Asia. "We're trying to make this an inclusive strategy and we don't want them to get a sense that they're vulnerable to any Indian Army people from their western flank, that's not necessary," Mattis said.
Mattis was in New Delhi last month and held talks with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Sitharaman had ruled out any troop contribution in Afghanistan and said it will continue to provide development assistance to the country. Islamabad is opposed to any major role for India in neighbouring Afghanistan, saying a Kabul-New Delhi axis would be detrimental to Pakistan's strategic interests.
During the hearing, Mattis insisted that an open border trade between India and Pakistan would help in bringing regional stability. "If there's any way for Pakistan and India to open their border to trade at great economic advantage to both of the countries, it would be a big help across the region," he said.
Stability can follow economics as much as stability enables economics, he added. He hoped that they will eventually see that happen. "I believe India wants that to happen, but it's very hard to do that if your concern is that you open the border to one thing, and you get something else," Mattis said in an oblique reference to cross-border infilteration. Responding to a series of questions on the Indian role in Afghanistan, Mattis said, " New Delhi has been generous over many years with Afghanistan. Because of its very generous funding over the years, India has achieved a degree of affection from the Afghan people as a result. They intend to continue this effort and broaden it.
Furthermore, they are providing training for Afghan military officers and NCOs at their schools." India, he said, is willing to do rehabilitation of Soviet-era equipment until they are replaced with American. That will take years, he noted. Furthermore, India has been providing and will continue to provide training for Afghan Army doctors and medics in the field so that the Afghan Army is able to take casualties and better sustain themselves thing, he said.
Mattis said there are many areas where India and the US are natural partners for each other. The two countries, he said, are deepening and broadening the military-to-military relationship.
"But it is not an exclusive strategy, exclusive of anyone. Any nation that wants to be part of the counter-terror effort and this stability effort in South Asia, can sign up," he said seeking to allay Pakistan's concern of being excluded. It is open to any nation that wants to move against terrorism and remove this threat to all civilised nations. Referring to his talks with the Indian leadership, Mattis said the US does not need to convince Indians that it doesn't have nefarious designs on the Indo-Pacific area.