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As Afghan security worsens

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    Posted: 06-Mar-2017 at 5:15am

As Afghan security worsens, India’s responsibilities just got bigger

NEW DELHI: This week's latest terror attacks in Kabul show once again how the Taliban remains Afghanistan's greatest security threat. Condemning the attacks, India said, "We reiterate our resolve to work with Afghanistan to bring perpetrators of terrorist violence to the justice they deserve wherever they may be." 

In Washington this week, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar met the new US NSA, HR McMaster on Wednesday, where both discussed Afghanistan and the way forward. Last week in Beijing, Jaishankar found the Chinese eager to talk about Afghanistan as well. 

Afghanistan has returned to centrestage of India's foreign and security policy, as two key crises rear their heads - a tottering government of Ashraf Ghani beset by numerous political problems, and secondly, a renewed threat by Taliban which has found fresh oxygen from apparent political endorsement by a new regional bloc, led by Russia and China. 

Ghani's government is in trouble, and there is talk in Kabul of a "jirga" that could look for a political alternative, though nobody wants to precipitate a crisis. 

Inevitably, political forces within and outside Afghanistan are looking at former president Hamid Karzai, who occupies a growing political space in Kabul at present. In fact, sources said, it was an acknowledgment of Karzai's growing importance that prompted China to reach out to India, given India's close relations with Karzai. In the past few weeks, Islamabad too has tried to re-engage Karzai, a man they had actively opposed when he was president. 
Of greater concern to India is the new apparent re-alignment of powers in the region, which could adversely impact India and Afghanistan, while giving an upper hand to the Taliban and their sponsors in Pakistan. While the US has been absorbed in domestic politics, Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Pakistan have made common cause by raising the spectre of Daesh/ISIS in Afghanistan, trying to create an opening to begin political negotiations with Taliban as a "friendly force" to keep out Daesh (ISIS). The new informal grouping, all on the wrong side of the US, could use their anti-US positions to make common cause with Taliban. 
Questioned, Shaida Abdali, Afghan ambassador to India told TOI, "We should not be repeating the mistakes of the 80s and 90s, to use one set of radical extremists against another." It's a return to the good-terrorists-bad-terrorists narrative, so skillfully played by Pakistan in the region. "We know the Daesh in Afghanistan, like the Taliban, have their roots in Pakistan," Abdali said. "India and Afghanistan have to defuse this and work together with true and sincere allies for genuine peace and cooperation between big powers in the region." 
Daesh mainly comprise disaffected TTP cadres and other militants displaced by Pak army's Zarb-e-Azb operations. There are no Arabs in it yet, though some Uzbek militants have been seen. In fact, recent reports point to steady whittling down of their numbers as they are targeted by drones and air attacks. 

India was given a seat at the Moscow meeting in February, an afterthought of sorts. The meeting called for Taliban to talk directly with Kabul government and decided to bring Central Asian states into the tent. On the sidelines though, Russia, China and Iran are also talking to the Taliban - China and Iran have maintained ties with the Taliban, Russia, through its forceful presidential envoy, Zamir Kabulov, is pushing the same idea, i.e., try to co-opt some Taliban, while going after the really hardline groups. This is not new - America used to push this idea of the good-Taliban-bad-Taliban, until they discovered that Pakistan's role with the Taliban made that impossible. 

The new grouping has significant power in Afghanistan, even China, which has a more mercantilist approach. While China is very sensitive to Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan, it obviously prefers to keep its options open by engaging India. This is not new either - in January 2013, former NSA Shivshankar Menon met the Chinese and Russians in Moscow in a similar initiative, which died later. India's role is more important, in both restraining old allies Russia and Iran from falling for the Pakistan line, as well as working harder with the US to stabilize Afghanistan.
But two things have changed - in 2017 its clear the US will continue to stay in Afghanistan; second, Afghanistan itself is in a more insecure place. And there is uncertainty about how the Trump administration will deal with Afghanistan. 

The Trump administration appears to have started out with the right notes. Abdali said, "We feel encouraged by the Trump administration. In their conversations with the Afghan leadership, including the conversation between President Trump and President Ghani, we feel Washington is taking the correct line. President Trump told President Ghani that India would be a good partner for both of us." 

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