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How the Afghanistan war became tangled in India vs. Pakistan rivalry

India-Pakistan tensions muddy US efforts in Afghanistan, where Pakistan's cooperation is needed. One key issue: Islamabad is wary of India's broadening regional role.

By Staff Writer / January 20, 2011

Soldiers of 101st Airborne Division patrol in the outskirts of Bagram in north of Kabul. The ongoing war has gotten tangled up in the rivalry between Pakistan and India

Rafiq Maqbool/AP

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New Delhi

The resolution of the US war in Afghanistan is getting tangled up in one of the world's most stubborn rivalries: India versus Pakistan.

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Pakistan cites India's influence in Afghanistan as one of its top concerns. And with Pakistan increasingly crucial to any military or diplomatic progress in the war, it's a concern that Washington has to manage.

Some current and retired Pakistani officials are hinting that as both the war and the peace efforts become more and more difficult, Washington and its Afghan allies might do more to reassure Islamabad that India won't play a major role in a future Afghan settlement.

"That, to my mind, is one of the mysteries: why the Americans have not recognized why the Pakistanis have a legitimate reason to worry about Indian involvement in Afghanistan," says Najmuddin Shaikh, a former Pakistani foreign secretary.

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Instead, he says, the US is looking for a "regional solution" that would involve negotiations with not just Pakistan, but nonbordering countries like Russia and India. He calls the inclusion of India "bothersome," and says the only countries for which Afghanistan is "critical" are Pakistan, Iran, and, to a lesser extent, the Central Asian republics.

In the end, Pakistan wants a friendly government in Kabul, and friendship is defined in reference to India.

"They are two sovereign countries, India and Afghanistan, and they have the right to have good relations. But what we are saying is that their relations should not be at the cost of Pakistan-Afghanistan relations, or in any way harm Pakistan's interests," says Abdul Basit, the spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Ministry.

Pakistan worries about having to defend both its eastern and western borders if India and Afghanistan grow too close. Pakistan has also alleged that India uses its consulates in Afghanistan to conduct espionage, stirring up antigovernment forces in Pakistan's frontier regions.

Verging on paranoia

Sometimes the Pakistani fears verge on paranoia, says Marvin Weinbaum, an Afghan expert at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

"I've had Pakistani diplomats tell me, 'You know, there are 15 [Indian] consulates,'" he says. (There are four.) "When you press them on it, they say that, in effect, this is our line," suggesting that they sometimes fabricate in order to have some bargaining leverage.

India did use Afghanistan to aid Balochistan separatists in the 1970s, Dr. Weinbaum says, but no evidence has turned up of meddling in recent years. That said, consulates are "listening posts," he adds.

Ramesh Chopra, a retired head of Indian intelligence, dismisses the idea that consulates are being used for espionage, noting that the border regions are an impenetrable war zone.

Beyond security concerns, Pakistan worries that India has historically supported minority ethnic factions in Afghanistan, creating tensions with the more numerous Pashtuns who live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

"Pakistan's interest is really that the Pashtuns should have their due share so that they don't then create resentments among the Pashtuns in Pakistan," says Mr. Shaikh. Many Pashtuns are unhappy with the current makeup of the Afghan government and military and that has contributed to the Pashtun-dominated insurgency.

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