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Afghanistan's neighbours anxious as US plans pullout

Afghanistan's neighbours - particularly India - are talking tough in the face of possible instability following the troop withdrawal.

Delhi // A flurry of diplomatic activity across South and Central Asia over the past two weeks has underscored rising concern about a power vacuum once US troops start withdrawing next year. Afghanistan's neighbours - particularly India - are talking tough in the face of possible instability following the troop withdrawal, and now the threat of a proxy war is being openly discussed.

"The bottom line is, Afghanistan does not want any proxy wars on its territory," the Afghan president Hamid Karzai told a news conference with the Pakistani prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Islamabad yesterday. "It does not want a proxy war between India and Pakistan in Afghanistan, it does not want a proxy war between Iran and the United States in Afghanistan." The United States is increasingly dependent upon Pakistan to broker a deal with the Taliban that Washington needs in order to begin its scheduled withdrawal of troops.

Islamabad, eager to become a central power broker in Afghanistan, is working hard to encourage that dependence. By aligning its fortunes so closely with Pakistan, the United States is antagonising India, bringing Indian foreign policy to a crossroads, the former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar wrote in the Asia Times yesterday. India now confronts a situation where Pakistan is sure to have major influence in a post-US Afghanistan if sections of the Afghan Taliban are brought into the government.

Part of any such arrangement, Mr Bhadrakumar said, would see a severe rollback of Indian interests in Afghanistan, something that deeply concerns Delhi. Still, India has vowed to become more involved in Afghanistan, despite attacks on Indian interests there by militants. "In spite of the attacks , we are going to continue our commitment [in Afghanistan]," India's foreign secretary, Nirupama Rao, told the Financial Times this week. "We need to stay engaged."

The Delhi foreign policy establishment is beginning to re-evaluate its relationship with the US; India had always assumed it had a strategic significance for the United States, as a counterweight to China Instead of focusing on America, said Mr Bhadrakumar, it should have been talking to its neighbours. "Delhi had put all its eggs in the American basket and now needs to activate its regional policies."

Srinath Raghavan, a former Indian infantry officer and now a policy analyst at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, said that message is now beginning to get through. "At the level of society to society, the relationship is very strong. But in terms of actual politics and policies, I think we still need to be a lot clearer about how we see the United States' role in the world," he said. This re-calibration of foreign policy will involve a closer relationship with Iran - just as the US tries to co-ordinate international opposition to Iran's nuclear ambitions - Mr Raghavan said.

"Iran is an important country for us, especially vis-à-vis Afghanistan," Mr Raghavan said. "We have worked with them in the past, and we need to work with them in the future. I don't see why we should let the terms of the Iran-India relationship be set by the United States." How these developments will play out is still hard to predict. On Wednesday, both Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, were in Kabul to meet Mr Karzai. As soon as they left, the Afghan president left for Islamabad. And last week, the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited Saudi Arabia, the first time an Indian premier has visited the country in 23 years.

Yesterday, Mr Karzai seemed to indicate he, along with Washington, had thrown his lot in with Pakistan. "India is a close friend of Afghanistan but Pakistan is a brother of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a twin brother ... we're conjoined twins, there's no separation," Mr Karzai said. The question now is whether India still views Mr Karzai as "a close friend." @Email:foreign.desk@thenational.ae

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