SINGAPORE (Reuters) - With Pakistan set to play a central role in any political settlement of the Afghan war due to its sway over the Taliban, India has few options to counter its bitter rival’s influence in the country.
Any deal that ends up with Pakistan in a dominant position in Afghanistan, while India is left smarting and worrying about its security, could foment tensions between the nuclear-armed neighbours, who already accuse each other of militant attacks and whose peace process has been deadlocked since the 2008 bombings in Mumbai.
Both nations have for decades played a modern-day version of The Great Game in Afghanistan to expand their influence in an unstable, but geopolitically vital, country both see as important to their security.
India sought to win Afghan support through a “soft power” approach, using some $1.3 billion to build roads, power lines and the Afghan parliament, raising the ire of Pakistan which frequently urged its ally the United States to lean on New Delhi to limit its presence.
Pakistan complains India is trying to hem it in, and that a string of newly opened Indian consulates in Afghanistan were intent on stirring up discontent in Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province just over border.
But with the United States announcing plans to pull out its forces next year, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai turning to Pakistan to help bring the Taliban and other militant groups to negotiations, the tables appear to have turned against India.
“India had good years in Afghanistan but unfortunately it didn’t last. Pakistan is back in the saddle. The situation has dramatically changed,” said Kamran Bokhari, Middle East and South Asia director for global intelligence firm STRATFOR.
On Tuesday, top officials from 60 countries led by Karzai and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton agreed at a conference in Kabul that Afghan forces should be leading security operations across the country by 2014.
Karzai also won support for his plan to reintegrate Taliban foot soldiers with offers of money and employment, while reaching out to senior leaders in the insurgency to end the conflict.
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Pakistan, which has had long-standing ties with the Taliban and other militant groups, some of whom it nurtured as strategic assets against India, is expected to try and convince the militants to end their insurgency.
But analysts say it would be a mistake to rely only on Pakistan, and ignore the concerns or security of other regional powers such as India.
“It is incumbent upon the administration that Indian interests kept in mind at the Kabul conference. In a lot of ways the one country with which the U.S. interests are aligned with in the region is India in any end-game in Afghanistan,” said Tim Sullivan at the American Enterprise Institute think-tank.
While India has no intention of abandoning its quest for influence, analysts say it could lower its profile in Afghanistan to bolster efforts for a political settlement in return for security guarantees.
Bokhari said India could be prepared for a lighter footprint in Afghanistan if it was assured that the Taliban, which it sees as tied to anti-India militant groups based in Pakistan, were not going to “run amok once again”.
“India will probably be saying to the Americans: okay, we understand we can’t have the kind of influence we had so far but the endgame must not lead to a situation which existed before the Taliban were ousted,” he added.
Already there are signs that New Delhi is adjusting its profile in Afghanistan, choosing to complete existing projects while not announcing any major initiatives. Officials have said they remained committed to helping develop Afghanistan.
Uday Bhaskar, head of the New Delhi-based National Maritime Foundation think-tank, said there is neither an attempt to pull back or to increase the engagement with Afghanistan.
“India is continuing as before. What India is trying to do is consolidate the gains. It is also looking at how things pan out in Afghanistan in the coming months,” he said.
New Delhi has also engaged in a flurry of diplomatic contacts with Iran, the other regional player in Afghanistan which like India is strongly opposed to the Sunni Muslim Taliban.
Neither Iran, nor India “wish to see the prospect of fundamentalist and extremist groups once again suppressing the aspirations of the Afghan people and forcing Afghanistan back to being a training ground and sanctuary for terrorist groups,” Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao said this month.
One of the big projects that New Delhi has successfully completed in Afghanistan is building a road in southern Nimroz province linking the landlocked nation to the Iranian port of Chahbahar, as a way to break its dependence on Pakistan for transport links.
The United States may not like India engaging Iran, but this might prod Washington to think more about Delhi, analysts said.
“The renewal of Iran-India ties will not be music to American ears. However it might propel Washington to re-think its AF-PAK policy,” said Shanthie Mariet D‘Souza, a South Asia expert at the National University of Singapore.
(Additional reporting by Krittivas Mukherjee in NEW DELHI and Jonathon Burch in KABUL; Editing by Miral Fahmy)