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The new great gamers
India crossed the Rubicon this week by concluding an India-Afghanistan strategic partnership agreement. Its 'killer app' - that India will train the Afghan army and police forces, and equip them too - could be the 'ichange' moment for this region.
The Afghan agreement has been a while in the making, and is largely the result of the dogged persistence of key MEA officials, who turned around a reluctant Indian political system. The hesitation was not only in Indian circles;Hamid Karzai also took several years to make this strategic shift. Despite Karzai racking up frequent-flyer miles to India, he was willing to give Pakistan more than a quarter, until Pakistani intransigence became the 'push' factor for Kabul.
India's offer to train Afghan security forces has been around for a while. A steady trickle of officers has been embedded in Indian defence institutions for specialised training - in non-threatening stuff - over the years. Karzai was reluctant to enhance it, and Pakistan was alarmed anyway. Now the trickle will become a flood, and it comes with weapons as well. Despite Pakistan's strangely worded prescription to Afghans to behave 'maturely', Rawalpindi will have much to chew on. Officials point out that Pakistan will throw a fit no matter what India does. But Islamabad's tantrums cannot veto these Indian actions.
The September 20 assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani had consequences beyond Afghanistan;just as 10 years ago, a similar assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud proved to be an inflexion point in the history of the region. Afghans said the plot had been hatched in Quetta, with the help of the ISI. This week, Mohamed Yasin Zia from Afghan intelligence identified the bomber as Esmatullah from Chaman. He also revealed that Pakistan had sent a letter saying they could not 'cooperate' in the investigation into Rabbani's death. Zia said that all necessary evidence to link the Quetta Shura to the assassination had been provided, but as usual, he added, the Pakistanis were making excuses.
With the US and NATO preparing for an exit, the prospect of a Taliban-led dispensation in Kabul is not a pipedream. It would be disastrous for India, Iran and Russia, and even China. Frankly, it would be terrible for Pakistan too, if only their military planners could be persuaded to see beyond their tattered strategic calculus, which is way past its sell-by date.
The Americans are playing a typical blow-hot-blow-cold game. On the one hand, Admiral Mike Mullen gladdened many hearts by speaking what we know to be the truth about the Haqqani network being a 'veritable arm' of the ISI. At the same time, there are reports that Tom Donilon, America's NSA, and other key officials met with a family member of Sirajuddin Haqqani in Dubai in end-August to work out an accommodation package for the deadly terror group. Since this was done with the assistance of the ISI, it's not difficult to imagine the ISI cutting a major deal with the US once again.
The writing was on the wall. We need to help Afghanistan with training, money and weapons to fend off the Taliban militarily. This idea put India and Iran back on the same page again, after several years of prickly relations. Neither Iran nor India has much love lost for each other. But the prospect that extremist Sunni radicals may once again control Kabul, as well as a future Pakistan, scares the devil out of both Tehran and New Delhi. It was no coincidence that Manmohan Singh chose to meet Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York. It was intended to help the Americans understand which way the wind was blowing. The strategic agreement and a renewed engagement with Iran is part of the same game. I suspect, somewhere not too far down the road, India will resume work on its air base at Ayni, Tajikistan.
US president Barack Obama recently rapped Pakistan for its links with 'unsavoury' characters, accusing them of 'hedging their bets' in Afghanistan with these fellows. The US embassy in Islamabad has confirmed to Pakistani media that military aid to the Pakistan army is suspended for the present and tied to 'cooperation' on the terror front. For Afghanistan to have a shot at a future without the Taliban, the US should stay the course. We certainly are.
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