After bin Laden: India sees opportunity in Afghanistan

India's prime minister is in Kabul to argue for an Indian role in the Afghan peace process. Pakistan could be worried that the mood in Kabul may have tipped in India's favor after bin Laden's death

By , Staff writer

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    Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (l.) speaks to the media, as Afghan President Hamid Karzai listens to him at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 12.

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India is seeking to expand its role in Afghanistan in the wake of Osama bin Laden's killing – but only modestly, showing that even a chastened Pakistan still holds significant leverage over war and peace here.

“We are a second-rate player. We don’t have the geography to be the principal player” in Afghanistan, says C. Raja Mohan, an Indian security analyst. But the international intrigue in Kabul has taken a turn in India’s favor after bin Laden. “Previously it looked like the whole thing was against us and now there are more possibilities.”

On a visit to Kabul today Prime Minister Manmohan Singh underscored India's support for Afghanistan, backing peace talks with the Taliban and pledging new aid that will bring its total support for the war-torn country to $2 billion.

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"India is your neighbor and partner in development," Singh told Afghan President Hamid and other senior officials. "You can count on us as you build your society, economy and polity."

But by backing talks with the Taliban, Singh risked the displeasure of India's closest Afghan allies, which are against negotiating with the insurgent group and against a peace process that will rely heavily on Pakistan. Despite those ties, he appeared uninterested in backing the movement that would push hard against the Taliban – and by extension, Pakistani interests – in any talks.

Pakistan’s location makes it indispensable to both the US and the insurgents, offering supply lines to one and shelter to the other. While bin Laden’s killing doesn’t alter that geography, concedes Mr. Mohan, it has opened doors for a wider Indian involvement in Afghanistan by tarnishing Pakistan’s clout with Kabul and Washington.

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For years, Pakistan has prevailed on Mr. Karzai – and his American backers – to not seek Indian help with security. Instead, India has given about $1.5 billion for economic development and pledged today to bring its assistance up to $2 billion. Now India is trying to cross into security cooperation by training police and helping the country form a female police battalion.

“So far we just limited ourselves to the economic things. If we do a little bit of [police] security it shows some boldness, but we still won’t do military,” says Mohan.

The Afghans want this sort of help but not for geopolitical reasons, says Nihar Ranjan Das, a research fellow with the Indian Council of World Affairs.

“They look to us not because they are against Pakistan, but because of our experience” building up institutions like the police over the past 60 years, he says.

But Pakistan fears Indian security involvement could leave Pakistan surrounded by hostile armed forces on both its eastern and western borders.

Protests

Still, the Pakistanis can take some comfort that Mr. Singh has steadfastly refused to gloat over the revelation that bin Laden took shelter in a Pakistani military town. And he did not lend India’s weight to protests against the peace talks, sticking instead to India’s support for talks.

The protest was led by Amrullah Saleh, Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief and Indian ally who was sacked by Karzai in a bid to curry favor with Pakistan.

Speaking to the crowds about the Taliban, whom Karzai has called “brothers,” Mr. Saleh said: “They are not my brother, they are not your brother – those are our enemies.”

The rally appeared to be disproportionately northerners and ethnic minorities, according to the Guardian newspaper. These Afghans were once represented by the Northern Alliance, a military coalition that fought the Taliban until it ousted them from Kabul in 2001 with US help.

Power scrum in Afghanistan

At a simplistic level, national politics in Afghanistan is a scrum for power between former Northern Alliance factions, Karzai’s backers, and the ethnic Pashtun insurgency. Former Northern Alliance leaders fear that Karzai’s efforts to bring insurgents into the government will come at their expense. The rally made it clear that they cannot be ignored in the peace talks.

For years, India helped finance the Northern Alliance while Pakistan backed the Taliban and other Pashtun groups. While both India and Pakistan profess support for Karzai, they both wield some influence through these ties to his opponents.

Singh, however, appeared to throw weight behind Karzai today.

“Afghanistan has made significant strides under President Karzai. He is a great patriot,” Singh told a banquet held by Karzai. He also backed the peace process, saying: “We strongly support the Afghan people’s quest for peace and reconciliation. India supports the unity, integrity, and prosperity of Afghanistan.”

Pakistani officials use a similar formulation, calling for a “peaceful, prosperous, and united Afghanistan.” The similarity suggests progress setting the parameters for peace talks, which will involve not just Afghans but neighboring countries and other nations.

Singh’s words are directed at Saleh and his threat to Karzai over Taliban talks, says Mohan: “I think India is saying, ‘Stay together against the extremist forces.’”

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