India chairs one of the working groups at ‘Heart of Asia’ meet

In this quaint former Silk Road town ringed in a semi-circle by snow tipped peaks forming the border with another post-Soviet nation Kyrgyzstan, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid met his Hindi-speaking Kazakh counterpart Erlan Idrissov immediately on arrival on Thursday evening followed by a call on Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev in a bid to integrate India into this region’s politics of oil, gas and communication links.

These ideas are enjoying resurgence with plans to roll back western military presence in Afghanistan and Iran planning to let its territory become a transport corridor to landlocked Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. As Mr. Nazarbayev remarked a day earlier, “just 18 years ago our region was a periphery little known to anyone. Yet now Central Asia is a very important link in the world economy and in the regional and global security systems.”

A quiet town, Almaty has burst into life with the “Heart of Asia” conference or what is known as the Istanbul Process series aimed at stabilising Afghanistan. Mr. Khurshid’s main business is at the conference, where India chairs one of the six subject-specific working groups. The External Affairs Minister, as is the trend these days, is seeking to pack in as many bilateral meetings as possible on the sidelines of a multi-nation conference.

During his 48 hours stay here, Mr. Khurshid has interacted with the U.S., Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Swedish, Latvia and the United Kingdom, all with different perspectives on the shape of geopolitics in the region and bound by the common desire to improve on the existing but tenuous connections in energy, trade, security and transportation links.

Though the focus during his first engagement (along with Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Afghanistan Satinder Lamba) with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State William Burns was on Afghanistan, the interaction provided a snapshot of the work-in-progress to develop communication links with South Asia.

Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are planning to inaugurate a new rail link in mid-May, which in turn will be linked to Afghanistan’s rail system. Turkmenistan is also developing a link to Afghanistan and then through Afghanistan to Tajikistan. There is also progress in projects such as the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan- India Gas Pipeline. Parallel to this is the North-South Corridor project being backed mainly by Russia, India and Iran for supplementary links that from New Delhi’s perspective will bypass Pakistan and parts of Afghanistan.

The two interactions with the Kazakh leadership were largely on bilateral issues with some discussions on the wider region due to Astana’s leading role recently in several multilateral bodies such as the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Organisation of Islamic Countries and now the Istanbul Process. But with the US, India sought answers to questions about the US military and diplomatic posture after the withdrawal next year of bulk of its soldiers from Afghanistan.

Not much in concrete terms was forthcoming because as Mr. Burns and Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan David Pearce explained, their President Barack Obama had not got into the numbers game yet.

But the U.S. will have a presence after 2014 and a consistent commitment to the security and stability of Afghanistan and the wider region.

The U.S. would prefer to concentrate on border security, counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and developing civil society and let neighbours handle the primary responsibility in all other areas.

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