West's Afghan policy hostage to Pakistan-India rivalries

NEW DELHI: While the United States has welcomed India’s offer to resume a dialogue with Pakistan, stalled after the deadly terrorist attacks in Mumbai on November 26 2008, its policy in Afghanistan is being held hostage by Pakistan’s insistence that India be kept out of the loop on any final resolution in that war-ravaged country. The US National Security Advisor General James Jones is in Islamabad on Wednesday for talks with Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership on how to conduct the next stage in the Afghan conflict.

The US-led ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) plans to begin a military surge in Afghanistan, initially aimed

at taking control, clearing and securing major urban centres and highways from the Taliban and placing the Afghan National forces gradually in charge as it prepares its exit strategy. Since several major cities in Afghanistan are near the border with Pakistan, the strategy needs the help of the Pakistani army to take on and prevent the uprooted Afghan Taliban forces from crossing into safe havens within Pakistan.

The strategy agreed upon in last month’s London Conference on Afghanistan also envisions talks with and attempts to wean away ‘good’ Taliban from the terrorist forces, for which Pakistan, with its close links to several of the groups (including the Haqqani group which attacked the Indian embassy in Kabul), has offered assistance.

According to a report in today’s New York Times, Islamabad has offered to use its influence over these groups to stop attacking ISAF forces if the US ensures that India plays no future role in Afghanistan.

Senior officials in India have confirmed that Pakistan has been “desperate” to get the Indian presence out of Afghanistan.

The Pakistani army chief Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani clearly spelt out recently that Pakistan sought what he called “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, to ensure peace within his country, but could not spare more troops to assist the US-led ISAF military surge because India remained Pakistan’s major enemy and troops could not be removed from their eastern border with India. According to analysts, Islamabad is increasingly rattled by the high levels of popularity India enjoys in Afghanistan, reflected in every major poll conducted there.

The Indian government has repeatedly assured Pakistan that India has no hostile intentions towards it (and history is witness that India has never been the aggressor in any Pakistan - India conflict) but is equally firm that, having spent over 1.3 billion dollars in development work to stabilize the elected Afghan government, it would not leave Afghanistan. For the US, which has publicly and repeatedly appreciated India’s development work in Afghanistan, it will be difficult to make a commitment to Pakistan to keep India out of Afghanistan.

For New Delhi, Afghanistan is vital for its strategic security and for its energy security because it provides a key transit point for the gas and oil rich countries of Central Asia, and New Delhi is sure it does not want any Taliban-type fundamentalist government controlling that country and mounting terrorist attacks on India (and the rest of the democratic world) and is backing a democratic government there to ensure peace. India has also consistently opposed talks with terrorist groups like the various segments of the Afghan Taliban.