KABUL When Afghan elders gather under a giant tent in Kabul for a peace jirga this week, they will have to be protected not just from militants trying to bomb the meeting from the hills above, but also insulated from a half dozen neighbours all battling for influence.
With the U.S. endgame in sight, Afghanistan's direct and near neighbours have stepped up efforts to undercut each other, advance strategic interests and exert influence on a negotiated settlement of the nine-year conflict, says Ahmed Rashid, journalist and author of "Taliban", the widely acclaimed bestseller.
There are two parallel and dangerous rivalries unfolding in Afghanistan: a proxy war between India and Pakistan that is now every bit as deadly as their 60-year duel over Kashmir, and another between Iran and the United States tied to their geopolitical tussle over a range of issues.
On top of this are the Chinese and the Russians exerting a pull on Afghanistan. China's interest is largely commercial, eyeing the country's vast untapped mineral deposits. Russia on the other hand, while shedding few tears at America's predicament, is concerned in the longer term over instability spilling into central Asia.
Of all the neighbours, Pakistan holds the highest cards in any possible deal with the Afghan Taliban to bring an end to the conflict, says Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia director at global intelligence consultancy
Its long-running ties to the group and the cross-border linkages to its own Pasthuns make it a central player. Indeed the Pakistanis don't even want Afghanistan to conduct separate negotiations with the Taliban.
"For Pakistan all roads to Kabul must go through Islamabad," says Bokhari.
Pakistan has been especially concerned about expanding Indian involvement in Afghanistan seeing it as an encircling gesture and will do everything possible to checkmate New Delhi.
At same time though, Bokhari said, a lowered Indian presence doesn't necessarily mean Pakistan's stock goes up proportionally. This is not the 1990s when Pakistan had close ties with the Taliban and everyone else was locked out of Afghanistan.
Indeed its unclear what kind of grip Pakistan has over the Afghan Taliban following the U.S. invasion in 2001 forcing Pakistan to switch sides and scale back ties to the group.
Besides Pakistan itself is now caught in the flames of extremist fire. Bokhari says its a misconception to think that Pakistan wants a Talibanised Afghanistan. "It's every bit a worry for Pakistani generals, they are fighting these forces on their side of the Durand Line."
India, on the other hand, was seriously rattled when the U.S. and NATO agreed at the January 28 London conference on Afghanistan to begin re-integrating Taliban fighters, says Rashid. Karzai went further by demanding reconciliation with the Taliban led by Mullah Mohammed Omar.
It is since trying to regain ground, reactiving links with Iran, Russia and the central Asian republics all of whom had backed the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the 1990s.
"India sees the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda working closely with anti-Indian groups based in Pakistani Punjab, such as Laskar-e-Taiba who have begun to re-infiltrate into Indian Kashmir to restart the guerrilla war which has been dormant since 2004," said Rashid.
If the competition between India and Pakistan is a stumbling block in Afghanistan, the tussle between Iran and the United States is just as complicated. The Iranians, according to Bokhari, are in the middle of a high-stakes game with the United States on a range of issues and Afghanistan is tied to it.
"They are looking at Afghanistan and saying this is part of the bigger package. They are telling the Americans in back channel negotiations that if you want to leave Afghanistan you have to recognise we have a stake here just as in Iraq."
At the same time, in the shorter term, Iran's intelligence services and members of the Revolutionary Guard have been backing elements of the Taliban even though there is no love lost between Shi'ite Iran and the Sunni Taliban.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, told reporters over the weekend that the U.S. had evidence the insurgents were being trained inside Iran and that weapons found in Afghanistan had come from Iran.
Finally the Chinese have extended themselves into Afghanistan, eyeing its untapped mineral resources to feed its surging demand. China's involvement in Afghanistan is primarily economic and stability is key to its interests.
"Unlike the West pushing for democracy, the Chinese would rather have the Afghans choose a type of government based on local culture, customs and domestic conditions," Shanthie Mariet D'Souza, a visiting scholar at Singapore's Institute for South Asian Studies, said in a piece for Eurasia Review.
Beijing is also content to let all weather ally Pakistan lead the policy to Afghanistan, and has in the past not been overly critical of approaches to the Taliban.
(Editing by David Fox