Analysis: India gears up for post-Nato Afghanistan
NEW DELHI, Oct 07, 2011 (Menafn - The Straits Times - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan says the Pakistanis are his twin brothers and need not fear him getting cozy with his "good friend" India, even as he invites New Delhi to train large numbers of his country's security forces.
India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the strategic deal inked this week with Kabul, Afghanistan's first with any country, is not aimed at third countries.
But make no mistake: This week's events mark a significant turn towards tense times for the sub-continent. New Delhi, clearly, has signalled its intention to be fully involved in the so-called "end game" in Kabul.
Indeed, that day may come sooner than the 2014 date mentioned. Mr Karzai is hinting that the withdrawal may be advanced by a year.
And with that, the scramble for influence in post-Nato Afghanistan has been joined in earnest. Russia, Tajikistan, Iran, China, and of course, Pakistan, are all in the game.
Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony is on record saying the expected resurgence of the Taleban after American troops leave will be "the biggest security challenge for India".
India was kept out of the first peace talks in Turkey because the United States did not want to offend Pakistan. But American ties with Pakistan have plummeted since US Special Forces tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden near a Pakistani military cantonment earlier this year.
That, combined with Mr Karzai's mounting frustration over Pakistan's perceived support for the militants who repeatedly attack Kabul and recently killed his top peace negotiator, has given India more leverage on Afghanistan and its embattled leader. Last week, Norway made India a permanent invitee to the back-channel negotiations it is hosting on Afghanistan.
"India will actively participate in the forthcoming international conferences on Afghanistan in Istanbul and Bonn," says the country's Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna. "Despite persistent attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan, engineered by forces inimical to India-Afghan friendship, we remain steadfast in our commitment to assist the valiant people of Afghanistan in their endeavour to build a peaceful, democratic and pluralistic nation."
India has suffered two lethal terror attacks on its embassy in Kabul, apparently orchestrated by the Haqqani network that the US calls a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's main intelligence agency. It has also lost engineers, who were kidnapped and killed by the Taleban while working on reconstruction programmes.
It is inevitable that Pakistan, which fears being caught in an Indian pincer, will respond to the India-Afghan accord, at least diplomatically.
"Given the region's dynamics, there is no doubt it will raise eyebrows among the establishment here and possibly lead to ill-advised efforts to ramp up Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan as well," the respected Dawn newspaper of Pakistan said in an editorial yesterday.
"The latest agreement only adds to the impression that regional players are beginning to shape their respective alliances in a part of the world whose future seems increasingly unpredictable," it said. "Soon after American allegations regarding the Haqqani network, Pakistan was busy welcoming Chinese and Iranian representatives to the country."
The official reaction from Islamabad has been low-key, however. "Both are sovereign countries, they have the right to do whatever they want," Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said in Islamabad.
Asked whether the agreement would have any negative impact on Pakistan, he said: "No, I don't think so. We are all in the same region. We want to work together for peace and prosperity in the region."
Analysts hope that Mr Gilani's views will prevail on the rest of Pakistan's powerful military-bureaucratic establishment, which sees influence in Kabul as vital in acquiring strategic depth against India.
The fear is that all this may turn bloody for an Afghanistan that already has gone through several convulsions. In 1979, it suffered the Soviet invasion that brought in communism. After the Soviets were forced out by the West-backed mujahideen, it had to endure the rise of the Taleban and its attempts to force an unfamiliar religiosity on its mostly moderate Muslims.
Now comes India, determined to signal its stepped-up involvement. India has been quietly training Afghan troops for a while, so the surprise is that both countries decided to go public with it at this stage.
Analysts point to a host of reasons for its assertive move, including the rising presence of Chinese army engineers and troops in the part of Kashmir that is under Pakistani control. Just as Pakistan, which has fought four wars with India, is skittish about the several Indian consulates in Afghanistan close to its border, the Indians are nervous about the Chinese presence in territory held by Pakistan.
On Wednesday, with Mr Karzai in town, Indian army chief V.K. Singh drew a pointed reference to this. He estimated that the number of Chinese personnel in Kashmir could be between 3,000 and 4,000.
"If the Pakistanis can have all sorts of agreements with China, why not we with the Afghans," says Mr Vikram Sood, former head of the Indian external intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing. "How can an outsider assume the rights of veto? The Afghans have decided in a particular way and we have to protect our own interests. Besides, what was announced was only the formalisation of what has been going on."
Some Indian analysts worry that Delhi may be attempting too much. It already has raised China's hackles by jointly exploring for oil with Vietnam in the South China Sea, over Beijing's objections.
Furthermore, India has no contiguous border with Afghanistan, presenting a logistical nightmare, notes security analyst Maroof Raza, a former officer in the Indian army. "My worry is that India may be heading for strategic over-reach," he says.
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