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India fears quick US withdrawal from Afghanistan after bin Laden's death

New Delhi worries it could be exposed to an unfriendly, Pakistan-dominated neighbourhood and unfettered Islamic militancy in its backyard if US goes too quickly from region after killing al Qa'eda chief.

The Pakistani prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, and the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, right, at the Cricket World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan. The news of bin Laden's Pakistan sanctuary came only weeks after Mr Singh's 'cricket diplomacy' initiative with India's neighbour.
The Pakistani prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, left, and the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, right, at the Cricket World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan. The news of bin Laden's Pakistan sanctuary came only weeks after Mr Singh's 'cricket diplomacy' initiative with India's neighbour.

NEW DELHI // India may nervously wonder if Osama bin Laden's death will hasten a triumphalist US withdrawal from Afghanistan and leave New Delhi exposed to an unfriendly, Pakistan-dominated neighbourhood and unfettered militancy in its backyard.

For India, bin Laden's death deep in Pakistan confirmed what it had long suspected: that a so-called Western ally was turning a blind eye to militant networks on its soil, a fear reinforced by the 2008 Pakistani militant attacks on Mumbai.

But even more worrying for New Delhi would be any sign that the US president, Barack Obama, will use the death to speed up the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, leaving a vacuum that its nuclear-armed foe Pakistan and the Taliban may only be to happy to fill.

A senior Indian government source, who declined to be named, said in reference to the situation post-bin Laden: "The clear issue is the need to focus on the situation in Afghanistan.

"No one wants a precipitous withdrawal of international forces in Afghanistan. There is still much work to be done."

Both India and Pakistan, which have gone to war three times since 1947, have sought for decades to secure leverage in Afghanistan, a Central Asian geopolitical crossroads. That desire has gained urgency after Mr Obama's tentative timeline to start to withdraw military forces from July.

Siddharth Varadarajan, an associate editor at The Hindu newspaper, said: "India's eyes will be more on the US than Pakistan. India will be looking at the end game".

The US administration, after eliminating its top target in the region, has publicly said it is committed to Afghanistan. But Washington politicians and observers say there is little doubt pressure will fall on Mr Obama for a withdrawal of troops as he battles a budget deficit and an upcoming election campaign.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has spent political credit on dialogue with Islamabad, seeing any peace deal as the crowning achievement of his premiership, despite a trend of having his fingers burned by Pakistan.

His olive branch in 2006 was dashed by the Mumbai carnage, an attempt to kick-start talks in Egypt in 2009 was pilloried by the Hindu nationalist opposition at home, and the news of bin Laden's Pakistan sanctuary came only weeks after Mr Singh's "cricket diplomacy" initiative.

That rapprochement will continue. While Indian newspapers revelled in a chorus of Pakistani condemnation, a carefully worded statement from the prime minister appeared to keep India on course for dialogue despite the lack of trust.

"India works on the assumption Pakistan will continue to deceive. The government will continue to engage with the full knowledge Pakistan is colluding with the bad guys," Mr Varadarajan said.

New Delhi fears a return to the 1990s in Afghanistan, when both a civil war and Taliban control fostered militant groups in the region and fuelled attacks on India.

Harsh V Pant of the Defence Studies Department, King's College London, said: "New Delhi has been contemplating the impact of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan for while. If the US left lock, stock and barrel, India would be left to pick up the pieces."

India is Afghanistan's biggest regional aid donor and its $1.3 billion (Dh4.77bn) of projects, from building a parliament to a highway to Iran, shows what Indian officials like to call their "soft power" to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan.

Washington has been happy to see that aid. But Pakistan has publicly derided India's attempt to secure influence in what Pakistan sees as its own backyard.

India has sometimes appeared frustrated at Washington for not pressuring Pakistan, a US ally, to do more to control terrorist groups within its borders, pointing to India's own susceptibility to attacks from militants based in Pakistan.

But that has not stopped India from reaching out, most recently when Mr Singh invited his counterpart, Yusuf Raza Gilani, to watch a World Cup cricket match between the rival countries in March, described by India's foreign secretary as "re-engagement" talks.

Until now there has been little political risk for Mr Singh. His tentative moves to Islamabad have not sparked outrage from voters for whom billion-dollar corruption scandals and persistently high inflation are far bigger concerns.

So India has little to gain in using bin Laden's death to press Pakistan harder. India has achieved little with hawkish stances and there is recognition that it only risks strengthening Pakistan's hardliners.

Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political analyst, said: "India is not going to push it hard because the whole process of normalisation will run into trouble, and Pakistan doesn't want that and the Indian government doesn't want that."

In the aftermath of the Mumbai attacks, US officials in 2008 called for India to tone down its rhetoric, a cable obtained by WikiLeaks said. It is a policy that seems to have sunk in with Mr Singh and with Shivshankar Menon, the national security adviser, a man seen as a major architect of India's Pakistan policy.