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The visit of a top Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader to Kabul over the weekend as well as the triangular talks among senior Indian, Afghan and American officials in the United States this week underline the rapidly evolving dynamic in the northwestern subcontinent.
Both the events are unprecedented. The unannounced appearance of Zhou Yongkang, a member of the CCP's politburo standing committee, in Kabul on Saturday is the first by a senior Chinese leader in half a century. Liu Shaoqi, China's president, had showed up in Kabul in 1966. The triangular talks in New York this week among India, Afghanistan and the US is the first such exercise ever. The proposal for the triangular dialogue was announced last June, when External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna met US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington for the third round of the annual strategic dialogue.
China's rising profile in Kabul and the prospects for Indo-US cooperation in Afghanistan are rooted in two important structural changes in our neighbourhood. One is the declining American military footprint in Afghanistan and the end to the US's combat role there by 2014. The other is the growing international disappointment with Pakistan's negative role in Afghanistan.
This month, the "military surge" that was announced by President Barack Obama nearly two years ago came to an end. The 33,000 additional troops that Obama deployed then have returned home. Obama plans to steadily reduce the remaining 70,000 troops in the coming months, if he is re-elected as president this November. He has announced plans to leave a small residual force of an unspecified number after 2014, which will help the Afghan National Army fight the insurgency.
Obama's Republican rival, Mitt Romney, has not really contested his Afghan strategy. In fact, Romney did not even mention the decade-long American war in Afghanistan in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention. While America is committed to stabilising Afghanistan and is bound to maintain a significant presence there for quite some time to come, the domestic support in the US for the longest foreign war has begun to evaporate quickly.
Until now, it has been quite convenient for China and India to have the Americans defending Afghanistan against violent extremism that threatens not only the US but also the entire region. Beijing and Delhi must now necessarily pick up some of the slack resulting from the reduced American military weight in Afghanistan.
India became the first country to sign a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan a year ago. Beijing is the second non-Western power to develop such a partnership with Kabul. During his brief stay in Kabul, Zhou signed a variety of agreements with Afghanistan, including one to "train, fund and equip" the Afghan security forces.
Beijing's latest Afghanistan initiative "is in line with the fundamental interests of the two peoples for China and Afghanistan to strengthen a strategic and cooperative partnership which is also conducive to regional peace, stability and development," Zhou said in a statement after his talks in Kabul. Beijing's strategic outreach to Kabul is at once the reflection of its growing economic and political interests in Afghanistan and a growing doubt in China's mind about the Pakistan army's ability to protect them.
Until now China has been quite comfortable in deferring to its "all weather friend" Pakistan in Afghanistan. That Beijing has chosen to cosy up to the current regime in Kabul, which is despised by Rawalpindi, suggests China is no longer willing to put all its bets on the Pakistan army and its proxies, the Taliban and the Haqqani network.
The reasons for the US's willingness to intensify the engagement with India on Afghanistan are not very different. Much like China, the US can no longer rely on Pakistan as the sole regional partner in securing and stabilising Afghanistan. Washington is coming to terms with the fact that the contradiction between its interests in Afghanistan and those of the Pakistan army might be irreconcilable. While the US will continue to need the support of the Pakistan army in Afghanistan, Washington has begun to hedge its bets by looking towards India.
The triangular talks signal a sea change in US policy towards India's role in Afghanistan. The Bush administration, for all its warmth towards India, had sought to discourage an Indian security role in Afghanistan. The Obama administration, which started four years ago with the notion that India is part of the problem in Afghanistan, has increasingly seen Delhi as a potentially significant element of the solution.
For Delhi, the new dialogue with Washington and Kabul is an important part of its strategy to engage all those with a stake in a stable Afghanistan. Last month, on the margins of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Tehran, India held the first ever trilateral talks with Iran and Afghanistan. The focus of the meeting was on developing transport corridors into landlocked Afghanistan, which today is totally reliant on Pakistan for access to the sea.
Instead of seeing China's entry into Afghanistan as a threat, Delhi must explore the prospects for three-way talks with Beijing and Kabul on regional stability. For India, the most important triangular engagement is the one that is not taking place — with Pakistan and Afghanistan. For peace will ultimately depend upon a regional reconciliation in the subcontinent. While Delhi and Kabul are eager to find common ground with Islamabad, Rawalpindi remains opposed.
As Delhi steps up its trilateral diplomacy on Afghanistan, it can't afford to go slow on the bilateral track. Despite its declared commitment to strengthen Afghan armed forces, Delhi's indecisiveness has begun to disappoint Kabul. Beijing's readiness to provide military equipment to Kabul, Washington's support to a larger Indian role, Tehran's interest in providing India access, and Pakistan's declining credibility should encourage Delhi to adopt a bolder strategic policy in Afghanistan.
The writer, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi, is a Contributing Editor for 'The Indian Express'