India, Russia, Iran explore anti-Taliban strategy

By Manish Chand, IANS,

New Delhi : With Pakistan trying to broker a deal with the Taliban and recent leaks exposing the sordid saga of Islamabad’s role in Afghanistan, India, Iran and Russia are coming together on the same page in what could possibly be a replay of 2001 when they backed the Northern Alliance’s campaign to oust the Taliban regime from Kabul.

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Closer coordination on countering the Taliban in Afghanistan figured prominently in discussions between Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao and Russian first deputy foreign minister Andrei Denisov in Moscow Monday, well-placed sources told IANS.

The Russian side briefed Rao about President Dmitry Medvedev’s plan to hold a trilateral summit later this month with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan leader Hamid Karzai, said the sources.

“Both India and Russia are inching closer on a regional approach and have shared interests in preventing a Taliban takeover after the US troops leave,” Arun Mohanty, an expert on India-Russia relations, told IANS.

The two sides are expected to firm up their strategic understanding at a meeting that Moscow is planning to host for senior officials/foreign ministers of India, Russia, Tajikistan and Afghanistan later this month, said the sources.

Moscow, too, has its own apprehensions about the Taliban as it fears the spillover effects on its periphery and in Central Asian republics where some Islamist networks are active. Ahead of last month’s Kabul conference on Afghanistan’s future, Russia had echoed India’s view that “there is no good or bad Taliban”.

Rao returns to New Delhi to hold talks with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Ali Fathollahi Thursday where the Afghan situation is expected to dominate the discussions.

The two countries, along with Russia, had backed the Northern Alliance in the days leading to the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001. In their meeting in New Delhi last month, External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna and Iran’s Minister of Economic Affairs Syed Shamsheddin Hosseini had decided to hold “structured and regular consultations” on closer cooperation in Afghanistan.

The Iranian side has assured India of accelerating the pace of work at Chabahhar port that will provide Indian goods an alternative access route to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. Due to the worrying Afghan situation and its energy security concerns, India is looking for ways to dodge the US and UN sanctions against Tehran and signed six pacts with Iran last month, including an air services agreement.

Shia majority Iran has influence over Hazara tribes in Afghanistan and resent Sunni-Pashtun Taliban’s influence on its periphery.

India, Russia and Iran intensified consultations over the Afghan situation, specially since the Jan 20 London conference cleared the decks for the reintegration of the Taliban, a contentious proposal which was reaffirmed six months later at the July 20 international conference in Kabul.

The proposal has not gone down well with the three countries, who see in the Taliban reintegration a ploy to expand Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan and a spur to Islamist militancy on their borders.

Of the three, India is the one which is directly affected as a Taliban takeover will directly impinge on its security interests.

The recent leaks of 92,000 classified US military documents by WikiLeaks, an online whistle-blower, have brought into the public domain the staggering scale of Pakistan’s military-ISI combine’s role in inciting insurgency in Afghanistan and in promoting anti-India activities through its militant proxies like the Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Haqqani network.

In fresh disclosures, Chris Alexander, a former Canadian ambassador to Kabul, has revealed that Pakistan Army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he can broker a peace deal with the Taliban – only if Indian consulates in Afghanistan are closed down.

(Manish Chand can be contacted at [email protected])