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India under pressure in Obama's AfPak strategy

July 14, 2009 13:29 IST
The death of six Indians working on a United States Agency for International Development-funded road project between Khost and Paktia provinces in southern Afghanistan last week and confirmation from Pakistan that it is concerned over India's "over-ingress" in Afghanistan is setting the stage for a new round of regional diplomacy, when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comes visiting later this month.

Clinton is travelling to Delhi and Bangkok, to attend a meeting of the Association of South-East Asian Nations, and is so far not scheduled to go to Islamabad, but it is clear that alongside a review of the bilateral relationship --including the latest differences on nuclear enrichment and reprocessing -- Pakistan's unhappiness over India's growing presence in Afghanistan will be on the table.

With elections in Afghanistan slated for August 20, the US is already believed to have told India to keep a "low profile" until the poll process is concluded, Indian officials said on condition of anonymity, but clearly Pakistan wants more.

In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Pakistan military spokesperson Major Gen Athar Abbas said, "What we see as a concern is an over-involvement of Indians in AfghanistanÂ…If you see an over-ingress of the Indians into these areas, like their government, their ministries, their army. The fear is, tomorrow what happens if these Americans move out and they're replaced by Indians as military trainers? That becomes a serious concern."

Abbas said Pakistan had told the US-led coalition in Afghanistan about its India-related concerns and stressed that "they (the coalition) have to have a line because if it goes beyond them, beyond the line, then of course the situation would take an ugly turn."

Indian officials, citing information from US counter-terrorism officials, believe the bomb attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul last July was masterminded by the Sirajuddin Haqqani faction of the Taliban, in connivance with Pakistan's intelligence agency, the ISI.

But western diplomats in Kabul, while appreciating India's reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan amounting to $1.2 billion, pointed out that New Delhi should also soon take steps to allay Islamabad's concerns on its own bilateral track.

"The US kept India out of its AfPak strategy in deference to New Delhi's demands that Kashmir be kept out of the regional hyphenation, but the truth is that India needs to be more understanding about the pressures Pakistan is facing internally," the diplomat said.

According to Radha Kumar, strategic analyst and professor at Jamia Millia University, the "logical outcome of the AfPak strategy is peace with India," and could take the form of action on Mumbai terrorists still free inside Pakistan (like Zaki-ur Rehman Lakhvi), the break-up of groups like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, autonomy within Kashmir and a settlement with Pakistan on the disputed state, Kumar said.

But as Pakistan began to crack down on its own Taliban, India needed to watch out for the spillover effect, in terms of infiltration or terrorist attacks. "The more unstable Pakistan is, the greater will be the spillover into India," she said.

While the first signs of a new dialogue seem to have begun between India and Pakistan, which will likely be taken forward on the margins of the NAM meeting at Sharm-el Sheikh in Egypt, India continues to press the US to press Pakistan to take action against India-directed terrorism.

It seems that the US establishment is divided over Pakistan's role in destabilising India's presence in Afghanistan. While some US officials believe that lower-level and retired operatives of the ISI still have connections with the Afghan Taliban, Newsweek, in its September 2008 issue, quoted US officials anonymous as saying Sirajuddin Haqqani had become the ISI's "darling".

Meanwhile, several Afghans are asking whether Pakistan will also act against the Afghan Taliban seeking refuge in the Pakistani city of Quetta, just as it was doing against militants like Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan."The US is still turning a blind eye to Pakistan's selective targeting of militants," an Afghan official said. But the western diplomats said the US did not want to push Pakistan too hard. "The Pakistan army's targeting of Baitullah Mehsud and his ilk are a first step. There is already a lot of anti-American anger within civil society in Pakistan. The Americans have to move carefully," the diplomats said.

Kumar confirmed that. "Pakistan seems to have reached a kind of tipping point, where it seems impossible for it to take on the India-related Lashkar, its own militants like Baitullah Mehsud as well as the Afghan Taliban, all at the same time," she said.

Jyoti Malhotra in Kabul
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