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Obama Afghan appeal to India

New Delhi, March 27: Barack Obama today signalled a diplomatic overdrive involving India and a clutch of Asian nations in its war against the Taliban but the response in New Delhi immediately after his speech was that there was little to mark a fundamental shift in America’s Afpak policy.

“From our partners and Nato allies, we seek not simply troops, but rather clearly defined capabilities: supporting the Afghan elections, training Afghan security forces, and a greater civilian commitment to the Afghan people,” Obama said in his speech.

In part this was an appeal to his trans-Atlantic European partners intended at shaming them into contributing more in the Afghan effort. And in part, this was also a plea to India, China, Russia, the Central Asian countries and, significantly, to Iran, to get involved in Afghanistan. But above all, Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan is not open-ended unlike George W. Bush’s.

Obama said that together with the UN, the US would form a “contact group” bringing together countries with a stake in the security of the region, including India.

The appeal does not mean that there will be Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan — a proposal that has been tantalising India-US-Pakistan relations since 2003 but has never really progressed from drawing board to laboratory.

“There is nothing very dramatic about it (Obama’s Afpak policy); the signs were there for some time. Also we were expecting enhanced support for socio-economic development of Pakistan,” said an Indian source.

“Co-operation with Iran is an interesting aspect. It can bring in positive change. At the same time, the devil is in the details. There are many imponderables such as addressing Iran’s nuclear question,” the source said.

But a larger exposure of India in Afghanistan is likely to follow despite Pakistani objections if the US follows through on the suspicions of Obama’s special representative Richard Holbrooke that the Taliban leadership is sheltered around Quetta in Pakistan.

A huge departure from Bush’s policy is the major role Obama is assigning to the UN. Obama himself called his drive on Afpak “a new way forward”.

The President said he would deploy 4,000 US trainers by autumn this year and hoped partner countries would follow suit so that the Afghan National Army (ANA) can be doubled to 134,000 troops by 2011. This is where India’s role is likely to increase. India has been involved in training the ANA in the past, too.

In New Delhi, it was noted comfortingly that Obama said “the core goal of the US must be to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaida and its safe havens in Pakistan, and to prevent their return to Pakistan or Afghanistan”. But hopes that the President would acquiesce to the Indian line that sections in Pakistan adopted terror as an instrument of state policy were dashed.

 

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