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AFGHANISTAN REGIONAL STABILITY - The X Factor.

Byline: Daud Khattak

Apart from India, key powers such as China, Russia and the United States are also eyeing an Afghanistan, free of terrorism and extremism beyond 2014. Convergence of this major interest is bringing India closer to its partners and neighbors - China, Russia and the U.S. - than Pakistan in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

With the United States and NATO allies drawing down their military presence in Afghanistan in 2014, and the contradiction between U.S. and Pakistani interests in Afghanistan escalating, Pakistan is no longer considered the sole country for bringing stability in Afghanistan and the region. To bridge the divide, NATO allies are pinning their hopes on other regional powers -- India and China - neighbors who have already invested heavily in Afghanistan's social and security sectors.

However, the million dollar questions is: will lasting peace and stability be possible without sincere efforts from Pakistan, the country enjoying leverage among the Taliban leadership and different groups operating from inside and outside Afghanistan? Due to its emotional proximity with Afghan jihadi groups and close relations with the pre-9/11 Taliban regime, Pakistan can certainly play a key role in ushering peace and stability in Afghanistan.

But as those who closely follow the region know that the last few years have only strained an already tense relationship between the United States and Pakistan as far as the question of Afghan peace, stability and reconciliation is concerned.

Among the key factors that affected the uneasy relationship was the May 2011 killing of Al-Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden in Pakistan's Abbotabad garrison town and the Salala incident that resulted in the loss of over a dozen Pakistan army soldiers, further extenuating the misunderstandings that existed between the two countries.

It was, perhaps, in this backdrop that then U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta, during his two-day visit to New Delhi in June last year, urged Indian officials to take a "more active role" in Afghanistan's security and rebuilding efforts. India had earlier become the first country to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan besides signing several MoUs to boost strategic and economic cooperation. Until recently, the United States was supportive of a limited Indian role in Afghanistan mainly because of Pakistani concerns. However, the constant vacillation in US-Pakistan relations forced the former to pin its hopes on India.

Besides the United States, NATO countries are also looking at Pakistan's role with hope and suspicion, particularly at times when pressure at home, economic issues in Europe, and war-weariness among security quarters is forcing the political leadership to push for an early withdrawal from Afghanistan. On the Afghan front, the Taliban and Afghan government are once again trying to bring the on-again-off-again peace process back on track. President Karzai's visit to the Qatari capital of Doha earlier this month was a part of this renewed peace effort. Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Janan Musazai, confirmed that President Karzai's government had agreed to opening a Taliban office in Doha for the purpose of peace negotiations. As the two sides, plus the United States, proceed with the negotiations, the tension with Pakistan over the structure of a post-withdrawal Afghanistan is likely to mount.

Pakistan's security establishment wants to retain a front seat in the peace talks and make sure that Pakistan does not get the short end of the stick in forming the future Afghan government and deciding roles for its neighbors, particularly India.

On the other hand, President Karzai as well as some ethnic groups have a soft corner for India. The roots of closer ties between the two sides go back to the era of Jihad and the hardliner Taliban regime in Kabul. India, like several other regional countries, supported the then Northern Alliance of late Ahmad Shah Masood against the Pakistan-backed Taliban.

In recent years, President Karzai had made at least 12 trips to India while the Indian investment in Afghanistan, both in security and social sectors, is now reaching almost $2 billion.

During Karzai's last visit to India in November 2012, the Indian prime minister pledged to provide $100 million for small socio-economic projects. "President Karzai and I agreed to intensify our cooperation with a special focus on deepening our economic engagement in areas ranging from agriculture and small business to mining and infrastructure," Manmohan Singh announced. India's increasing focus on Afghanistan and its reconstruction efforts are a way to block Pakistan's influence and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a breeding ground for extremism. After all, who knows better, than India, the negative effects on security should a pro-Pakistan Taliban regime establish itself in Kabul?

Apart from India, key powers such as China, Russia and the United States are also eyeing an Afghanistan, free of terrorism and extremism beyond 2014. Convergence of this major interest is bringing India closer to its partners and neighbors - China, Russia and the U.S. - than Pakistan in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan.

Akin to India, Pakistan has its own concerns about the increasing Indian influence and presence in its neighborhood. At times when Pakistan's ties with the United States and Afghanistan are suffering from misunderstandings and suspicions, an increased Indian influence in Afghanistan would create further obstacles in the way of lasting peace and stability as far as Pakistan's role as a peacemaker is concerned.

In the worst case scenario, the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan and the ethnic tensions rising in the country can turn into a full-fledged covert war between the two South Asian nuclear-armed rivals by extending financial and material support to the militant groups both in Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan.

However, to look for a silver lining on the Afghan horizon, the existence of a strong supporting voice among Pakistanis for peace in Afghanistan is giving room to the hope that return of peace and stability, though lately, can't be ruled out.

Speaking during a private television debate on Pakistan's Foreign Policy earlier this month, top leaders of leading political parties were unanimous in the view that the world should see Afghanistan as a fully sovereign country. They agreed that Pakistan's security establishment was accused of considering Afghanistan as its 'fifth province' and 'that approach needs to change.'

Daud Khattak is Acting Director at Mashaal Radio, RFE/RLPrague, Czech Republic and has covered the Taliban movement in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also writes for the Christian Science Monitor and Sunday Times.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:May 31, 2013
Words:1056
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