NEW DELHI • India will not deploy troops to Afghanistan as part of a new United States strategy for the war-torn country, Indian Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told her American counterpart, General James Mattis, yesterday, but she promised to boost support for the recently unveiled effort.
After talks with the US Defence Secretary, Ms Sitharaman said India was prepared to increase training for Afghan personnel and help develop critical civilian infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.
"India's contribution to Afghanistan has been for a very long time, and has been consistently on developmental issues," Ms Sitharaman said at a news conference with Gen Mattis. "However, as we have made it very clear, there should not be boots from India on the ground."
Gen Mattis' trip to India is the first by any member of US President Donald Trump's Cabinet. It comes just after Mr Trump unveiled a new Afghanistan strategy and urged New Delhi to help.
"We applaud India's invaluable contributions to Afghanistan and welcome further efforts to promote Afghanistan's democracy, stability and security," Gen Mattis said.
India has long vied with arch rival Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan, building dams, roads and a new Parliament in the troubled country. Last year, it offered some US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) in aid. It has also trained more than 4,000 Afghan National Army officers and provided helicopters to the Afghan Air Force.
Unveiling his Afghanistan policy last month, Mr Trump angered Pakistan by saying it offered a safe haven to "agents of chaos".
"There can be no tolerance of terrorist safe havens," Gen Mattis said yesterday, without referencing Pakistan. "As global leaders, India and the United States resolve to work together to eradicate this scourge."
Under the plan, the US is sending more than 3,000 additional troops to Afghanistan to train and advise the country's security forces. There is no timeline on when the US may pull its troops out - a change from former president Barack Obama.
Asia expert Michael Kugelman of the Woodrow Wilson Centre was not surprised that India is avoiding putting troops into the fight. "The risks of provoking Pakistan are perceived to be too great," he said.
He outlined another, riskier possibility - that India might be more open to ship arms to Afghanistan.
"New Delhi has rarely sent large, lethal weaponry to Kabul other than a small fleet of fighter helicopters some months back," he said. "But it may well bite the bullet and contend that the need to strengthen the Afghan security forces outweighs the risk of angering the Pakistanis."