The struggle for influence in Afghan

Washington D.C. Aug.1 (ANI): The deadline for the withdrawal of most, if not all U.S. and other NATO troops from Afghanistan, is only 18 months off, but much of what will happen after that, is still up in the air.

The world closely watches as the U.S., the Afghan Government led by President Hamid Karzai, the Northern Alliance and Afghanistan's neighbours are searching for a solution to the Afghan conflict that is in their best interest, though not necessarily in the interest of the country.

The Obama administration invested three precious years in trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but within a week after the Taliban office opened in Qatar, the peace process hit the rocks.

President Karzai refused to be part of the talks, claiming that the U.S. had bypassed the Government of Afghanistan in reaching out to theTaliban, who have revived the name 'Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan' for their now closed office. He also stalled negotiations on an agreement for residual American force of trainers and advisors to remain in Afghanistan after 2014.

President Karzai's unexpected rebuff to Washington could be read in the context of his struggle to maintain his power base and ensure a trusted successor, who would protect his and his loyalists' interests, in the 2014 presidential election. But this has not gone down well with the White House, which immediately let it be known, that if the two sides don't reach an agreement, Washington would consider the option of zero troop presence in Afghanistan post-2014.

The White House's response has drawn criticism from the media and the policy circle in Washington. It is perceived as leaving Afghanistan in the lurch like Iraq, which is still battling instability and insurgency. In an editorial titled, "The U.S. 'zero option' in Afghanistan makes zero sense", The Washington Post argued that it would motivate the Taliban to refuse negotiations and continue fighting, and create insecurity among the Afghans at the critical time of transition.

However, all stakeholders understand this is not the 1990s, when Pakistan did not have to worry about a raging militancy at home, and the Taliban swept Afghanistan with its tacit support, without much resistance. Pakistan's interests in Afghanistan have drastically changed since the 1990s. Also, the Karzai-led Government as well as non-Pashtun forces would not cede space to the Taliban so easily.

Talking to ANI, Afghanistan expert and Scholar-in-Residence at the Middle East Institute Dr. Marvin Weinbaum said, "Pakistan does not trust the Taliban and would like to avoid their dominance in Afghanistan. A radical Islamic state in Afghanistan would energize elements within Pakistan that want to undo the Pakistani state and its constitutional system."

By engaging with the Afghan High Peace Council, Pakistan has sent a message that it would like to see the Taliban become a part of a broad-based Afghan dispensation.

"Afghanistan knows that there can be no solution without Pakistan. For its part, Pakistan realizes that the solution has to be an inclusive one. They can't realize their goals through the Pashtuns alone," said Dr.Weinbaum.

The upcoming presidential election in 2014 will be critical in determining where Afghanistan is heading. Given the intense nature of the process, it could plunge the country into violence, further deepening ethnic rifts. With proper support, however, the election could bring forth a credible successor to President Hamid Karzai, who could carry forward the process of a political settlement with the Taliban. The fallout of whatever happens in Afghanistan is not going to affect the U.S. or the Western countries so much as it would impact its immediate neighbours, none more than Afghanistan.

India, for its part, has deepening interests in Afghanistan. During the past decade, India has consolidated its position through soft power strategies like generous funding for reconstruction projects. It wants to expand trade with Afghanistan and secure energy resources of the Central Asian states for which it also needs normalisation of relations with Pakistan.The U.S. has so far desisted from involving India in Afghan security due to Pakistan's concern, which perceives it as encirclement by hostile forces.

Although doomsday scenarios have been painted regarding India-Pakistan tensions deteriorating into a proxy war in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of U.S. troops, it would take something substantial to break down relations between the two countries. India recognizes that Pakistan is deeply embroiled in militancy, and has moved past the November 2008 terror strikes on Mumbai to open negotiations with Pakistan.

According to former Pakistani diplomat and professor of South Asian studies at the Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities in Washington, D.C., Ambassador Touqir Hussain, "India would wait and watch what picture emerges and how Pakistan acts after U.S. troops' withdraw. Whether it would support the Northern Alliance against the Taliban would depend on what assistance Pakistan might lend to the Taliban."

There is so much uncertainty about the U.S. plans and the presence of its troops in Afghanistan post-2014, that everyone is waiting for a concrete picture to emerge, he said.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at isaleem@syr.edu By Ishrat Saleem (ANI)

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