US shift in Afghan strategy worries India

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New Delhi, Oct. 13 (ANI): As the United States reviews its Afghanistan strategy and plans with a focus on Al Qaeda and the Taliban, foreign Policy makers and strategists here are bracing up for another challenge.

There is a growing perception in the United States that the Taliban is not as much of a potent threat to the NATO and US troops as was once thought, and that the real enemy is Al Qaeda.

India strongly believes that both organizations are interlinked and that ignoring, legitimizing or compartmentalizing terrorism could be counter-productive, if not for the US, definitely for "backyard" India.

Recently US secretary of state Hillary Clinton was quoted saying "Not everyone who calls himself a Taliban is necessarily a threat to the UK or the US. This perception is gaining momentum and legitimacy among western forces with every passing day.

Even the United Nations is convinced about the US evaluation. Recently, Richard Barrett, the chief of the UN Al-Qaeda-Taliban Monitoring Team, opined that links between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are quite strong, but due to their distinct goals, not inseparable.

The foundation stone of this shift of focus from the Taliban to Al Qaeda was laid earlier in the year when US President Barack Obama unveiled his landmark AFPAK policy where he emphasized on reconciliation with the "Good Taliban", a move strongly objected to by India, which sees no difference between the Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Analysts here believe that Washington is looking for an exit strategy, and add that this change of heart is calibrated. The Taliban too seems to have offered an olive branch by issuing a statement in English via its website which reads: "We do not have any agenda to harm other countries, including Europe, nor do we have such agenda today."

There isn't an iota of doubt regarding the deep linkages between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a linkage bound by fundamentalism and barbarism, besides a "shared misfortune."

The US knows that the Taliban hosted and encouraged Al-Qaeda, and that the 9/11 plot was hatched in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

According to writer Ahmed Rashid, the Taliban is on a "constant learning curve" that needs repeated al Qaeda advice.

It is a proven fact that Al Qaeda has financed, trained, and equipped the Taliban and have even sheltered Osama Bin laden.

Commentators also believe that the Taliban's affiliation with Al Qaeda has given the outfit International recognition and media attention.

However, overlooking the ground realities, what worries India the most about an altered US strategy is the move to compartmentalise terrorists.

Over a thousand people have been killed in Taliban attacks in 2009 alone. Ofcourse, the Taliban and its conduits like the Lashkar, the Jaish and the Jhangvi have no direct confrontation with the US, but its cadres are inspired and indoctrinated by Qaeda leadership and are nursing an ambition of becoming global players.

Taliban and its conduits, especially India centric groups, have the capacity and are equipped to cause any damage recent attacks on GHQ Rawalpindi and last year 26/11 Mumbai attack clearly reflects their ambitions and potential threat they pose.

What is more worrisome for India is that once the NATO and the US turn their eyes away from the Taliban which is now scattered, it might regroup in the AFPAK region, bringing Indian efforts in Afghanistan to a naught.

Another fear factor looming large in New Delhi is that in its pursuit to convince the Taliban to dump Al Qaeda, the US might use Pakistan as the chief catalyst and may give sweeping powers to Pakistan to eliminate, buy, reconcile and make peace with Taliban as US has failed to buy peace .

New Delhi fears that some quarters in Pakistan. especially the army and the ISI who still see the Taliban as a strategic force against India, may replicate what they have done in the past by directing the Taliban forces towards India.

Interestingly this churning is taking place just a month before Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh's visit to the United States and the issue has all the ingredients that can mar a burgeoning relationship.

Indian officials have time and again conveyed India's apprehensions on the issue to their American counterparts, but the US does not appear to be convinced and is likely to go ahead with the shift in its Afghanistan policy. By Naveen Kapoor (ANI)

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