India cannot remain impervious to the threat of spread of challenges from Afghanistan to neighbouring countries.Islamic radicalism and its manifestations of separatism and extremism justifying terrorist methods of conflict add to the potential for instability in Central Asia.

President Pratibha Patil's visit to Tajikistan on September 2 provides a rare backdrop to pin our thoughts on Indias approach to regional security issues in South and Central Asia. The region is caught in the vortex of security challenges and threats that may appear episodic but are formative. The biggest threat to regional stability originates from Afghanistan in the activities of radical extremists and drug traffickers.

Islamic radicalism and its manifestations of separatism and extremism justifying terrorist methods of conflict add to the potential for instability in Central Asia. At the same time, a high level of strategic uncertainty has also appeared in the region, stemming, paradoxically, from big power rivalries, given the significant increase in its importance as a major source of petroleum resources and as an alternative to the volatile Middle East and Caspian regions.

Slowly but surely, the outside actors principally Russia, the United States, China are consolidating or increasing their presence in the region through complex modes of relationships that promote cooperation as well as trigger competition. A kind of polarisation of relations between Russia, on the one side, and the U.S., on the other, has been accelerating in the region. The strategic rivalry is compounded by the worsening security in Afghanistan. As militant Islamists infiltrate from across the Afghan border into Tajikistan, regional stability is coming under severe challenge. The result is a state of strategic uncertainty as a medium-term prospect.

Certainly, India will be averse to being the promoter or participant in a competing effort. However, it cannot but be affected by the outcome of the ongoing struggle for spheres of influence between the pro-Russian and pro-American vectors or among contending projects Russias Eurasia Space project, Americas Greater Middle East Initiative, Chinas Assimilation project, and the EUs Integration project and last but not least the potential entanglement of the region in the World Islamic Caliphate project. Again, regional security in Central Asia is currently multilevel and unstructured and often contradictory, which compels India to avoid military-political cooperation. Having said that, India, as an affected party, cannot remain impervious to the permanent threat of the spread of challenges from Afghanistan to neighbouring countries. The diplomatic challenge is that India is called upon to promote regional stability and bolster its anti-terrorist efforts without resorting to military-political modes of cooperation. The predicament is similar to Chinas.

A redeeming feature of the Central Asian situation is that it is highly unlikely that any of the international players involved in regional projects will undermine the regions stability, which is already quite fragile. From the Indian perspective, Washington's continued focus on the Greater Middle East Initiative is of some particular interest. The U.S. thrust is on drawing the countries of the region into its sphere of influence as an area of responsibility, including Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan that constitute areas of instability. No doubt, the directions of the U.S. strategy to solve the Afghanistan-Pakistan problem directly impact on Indian interests.

The President's visit to Tajikistan will come at a critical juncture when the effect of the Pakistan factor is simultaneously appearing on several templates. Unfortunately, the Indian discourses on the 8-year old Afghan war narrowly focussed on the war on terror and remained indifferent to the hidden American agenda of the war. The hidden agenda is the core agenda, which devolves upon the unfinished business of the Cold War and the U.S. global dominance in the 21st century.

We almost lost sight of a profound pre-9/11 background to the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. The U.S. intended to recognise the Taliban regime in Kabul in 1996. Senior Taliban officials were welcomed in the U.S. Big Oil financed the Taliban. The U.S. encouraged the Central Asian states to work with the Taliban. Key U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates generously helped the Taliban and accorded it diplomatic recognition. A major NATO ally, Turkey, kept up official consultations with the Taliban regime right till 2001. Indeed, the then U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Robin Raphel (who is reportedly being inducted into Richard Holbrookes team), used to enjoy privileged access to the Taliban leadership in Kandahar, and actively campaigned for the Talibans unique credentials as an indigenous force capable of stabilising Afghanistan, which posed no real threat to regional security.

The U.S. intent to strategically dominate the Central Asian region predates the military intervention in 2001. In sum, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has arrived for an open-ended stay in our region within the framework of the U.S. strategy to make it a global political organisation. How Indias interests will mesh with this geopolitical reality needs to be weighed. Especially so, as the U.S. is encouraging the build-up of Pakistans partnership ties with the NATO on a medium-term basis that goes beyond the call of the Afghan war.

Second, Islamism will remain a principal instrument of geo-strategy for the U.S. towards Central Asia, North Caucasus and Xinjiang. The rehabilitation of the Taliban in Afghan mainstream politics is on the cards even without its formal disarming. India needs to factor in what the ascendance of political Islam in the region will entail for its security. Equally, there should be clarity of thinking to differentiate between shades of Islamism. The imperative of seriously engaging Russia, China, Iran and the Central Asian states on issues of regional security as powers affected by extremism emanating from the AfPak belt cannot but be stressed.

Ms. Patil's visit to Dushanbe takes place at a profound juncture when several tendencies are converging. No doubt, the U.S. hopes to manipulate in the coming weeks the creation of a power equation in Kabul, which is completely amenable to Washingtons agenda of reconciliation with the Taliban. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband underscored in his recent speech at the NATO headquarters that the U.S. and Britain are increasingly open-minded on reconciling with the Taliban. However, the Talibans regional acceptability still remains a hurdle. There has to be a broad regional acceptability. Washington can count on Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to acquiesce in the process, apart from Pakistan, which roots for the Talibans reconciliation. Uzbekistan is a key player in the Amu Darya region no less than Pakistan in the Pashtun heartland. An axis with Tashkent in northern Afghanistan and with Islamabad in southern and eastern Afghanistan will be what the U.S. needs as it addresses the Talibans reconciliation and return to mainstream political life in Afghanistan.

However, the U.S. is yet to strike the mother of all grand bargains critical to establish the Talibans regional acceptability engaging Iran. Iran is a game changer on the Afghan chessboard and potentially for Central Asian security. Tehran may be willing to work with the U.S. on the stabilisation of Afghanistan provided Washington makes a comprehensive engagement of Iran as a regional power.

India faces a strange regional security paradigm. On the one hand, anticipating the nearing endgame in the Afghan war and the inevitable shift in the regional alignments that may ensue as the U.S. presses ahead with its strategy towards Central Asia, Pakistan has done some smart geopolitical positioning. It can today take advantage of: a virtual U.S. guarantee against any coercive diplomacy on Indias part; burgeoning ties with the NATO; active regional diplomacy vis--vis Iran, Russia and the Central Asian states; and an all-weather friendship with China. Ironically, Pakistan has become a key interlocutor for regional countries today precisely due to its influence over radical Islamist groups. The frontline Central Asian states, Russia and Iran are under compulsion to seek out Pakistan not so much as the epicentre of terrorism but as an interlocutor in seeking a practical solution to the issues affecting their national security. They have formed bilateral and regional formats for engaging Pakistan on this front including Russia. Meanwhile, Pakistan will remain an irreplaceable ally for the U.S. in the effective pursuit of its Central Asia strategy and the U.S. is under compulsion to strengthen Pakistani military capability. However, Pakistan continues to take a differentiated approach towards militant groups that threaten Indias security but does not confront the U.S. interests directly. There are limits beyond which the U.S. will not press Indias case in Islamabad.

In the coming months, as the U.S. political engagement of the Taliban gains traction, Washington will surely expect New Delhi to keep the Indian profile in Kabul below the parapet. All the above confronts India with a regional security paradigm with contradictory tendencies. Clearly, there is need to keep the lines of communication open with Pakistan call it dialogue or exchanges or consultations no matter what our machos noisily demand. A saving grace is that, in retrospect, New Delhi rejected any Indian military deployment in Afghanistan, though sections of our strategic community rooted for some adventure in the Hindu Kush.

(The writer is a former diplomat.)

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