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Cries for help feed Delhi’s Afghan worries

Afghan Uniform Police personnel react after an IED attack in Kandadhar. (Reuters)

New Delhi, Jan. 30: Restive over Pakistan’s centrality to their reconciliation roadmap, influential Afghan sections are lobbying New Delhi to play pro-active counterpoint. The irony is the Afghan High Peace Council itself has handed Pakistan pre-eminence in its peace scheme and left little room for an Indian role.

Leaked sometime ago, the “Afghan Peace Process Roadmap to 2015” immediately spurred concern in South Block on two key counts: Pakistan’s primacy in navigating the process and the prospect of a post-US withdrawal deal with the Taliban whose contours and implications would not only be opaque but also adverse to India.

It is of little comfort to New Delhi that the new plan has been backed by both the US and the UK, which probably even played a role in its authorship. Initially reluctant to foreground Pakistan in the Afghan peace process, the US appears to have come round to the view that no lasting solution to the protracted Afghan strife is possible without Islamabad.

As Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour and bearer of the destructive exhaust of decades of Afghan turmoil, Pakistan is for nobody to square off the Afghan equation. At the same time, the deep involvement of Pakistani armed forces and intelligence in sustaining and spurring the Taliban has raised worrying questions about how well-intentioned its role may be.

Consistent urging from significant Afghan sections —politicians, businesspeople, civil society and media — over past weeks has only fed New Delhi’s concerns over the build-up of portentous prospects in the neighbourhood. A prominent media figure, sources said, had mildly suggested to officials during an interaction that New Delhi should “even be prepared to intervene militarily in the interest of the Afghan people” in the aftermath of the US withdrawal.

“Things are bad,” he was quoted as saying. “And Pakistan will try its best to get a grip over us by hook or by crook, even if it has to wage proxy war through the Taliban aided by its intelligence and armed forces.”

Based on background conversations with visiting members of the Afghan Jirga, or parliament, and senior media and civil society activists, The Telegraph has gathered that a few urgent anxieties have been pointedly conveyed to policy makers:

That the Hamid Karzai government is insecure and shaky;

That it could cut deals that will hurt fledgling democracy and genuine reconciliation and peace;

That Pakistan isn’t an honest or well-meaning peace-broker and will move to establish a loyal, or puppet, regime;

That all of this could plunge Afghanistan once again in a bloody civil war reminiscent of the 1996 takeover by Mullah Omar’s forces, still powerful in the region, and Pakistan-fed.

“Our worries are deep and staring us in the face,” an Afghan MP told The Telegraph last week.“Who knows who is brokering what settlement with the Taliban? We face the possibility very soon of losing all the gains we may have made in the last few years and as an old and trusted friend and neighbour that should worry India too, we are here to articulate the wish that India should use its international leverage and good offices to assert a greater role, it will be for the good of all of us.”

India’s strategic interests in Afghanistan and beyond, cannot be overstated; it also lies hugely invested there in men, material and money.

“Aside from the Afghans themselves, we cannot emphasise enough how important the democratic stability of Afghanistan is to us,” a foreign ministry official said.

“Based on what we have been hearing from our own sources, from international inputs and from the Afghans themselves, that is under serious threat of being compromised after the US withdrawal (planned for 2014).”

It is with this specific objective that national security adviser Shiv Shankar Menon is travelling to Turkey in February for meetings with his counterpart Muammer Turker, and the Turkish foreign secretary, Feridun Sinirlioglu. Turkey has sprung as a player in the Afghan peace process having recently offered to host mid-rung Taliban leaders released by Pakistan and set up table for direct talks between them and the Karzai government.

Menon may go beyond merely stating Indian apprehensions with the emerging architecture of the peace process — specifically Pakistan’s central role in it and the shadowy nature of talks with the Taliban — and make a case for a more transparent process that would accommodate and address a wider range of inputs and concerns.

India is not merely unhappy a Pak-brokered deal with the Taliban may already be in the works, it is deeply vexed.