Afghan regional solution may be too little, too late

LONDON Mon Jan 25, 2010 6:20am EST

LONDON (Reuters) - A renewed push for a regional solution to Afghanistan bringing on board bitter rivals India and Pakistan may be too little, too late to achieve results in time for Washington's 2011 deadline for drawing down troops.

The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan will have their first chance to meet since September at a conference in London this week at which Britain wants to convince regional players to cooperate rather than compete over Afghanistan.

"Afghanistan has for far too long ... been the ground on which regional powers have essentially exercised or fought out some of their tensions by backing different groups against each other ..." British ambassador to Kabul Mark Sedwill said.

"That has to stop. The Great Game is over and Afghanistan has to be become a point of stability within the region," he said, while briefing reporters on the January 28 conference bringing together representatives from more than 50 countries.

But any easing of India-Pakistan rivalry -- an essential part of any broader regional approach -- is likely to happen too slowly for the timetable set by President Barack Obama.

Washington's need to achieve results in Afghanistan by 2011 is at odds with the longer-term clock followed by India and Pakistan, said Steve Coll at the New America Foundation.

The tense relationship between the two has kept the Pakistan Army focused on its eastern border with India rather than fighting militants on the western border with Afghanistan.

Pakistan is also seen as unwilling to tackle the Afghan Taliban, believing it might need them to counter India's growing influence in Afghanistan in the event of a U.S. withdrawal.

"My sense is that the administration feels stymied by India's continued insistence that it does not want any outside help and the frustratingly slow pace by which India and Pakistan are trying (to find a way back to negotiations)," said Coll.

"The U.S. doesn't seem to be able to construct a breakthrough."

FROM KASHMIR TO KABUL

During Obama's election campaign, analysts spoke of the need for a "grand bargain" which included India and Pakistan making enough progress on their dispute over Kashmir to build the trust needed to allay their suspicions in the Afghan front.

Without that, the risk is that both countries would end up backing opposite sides in a renewed civil war following any U.S. withdrawal -- with India supporting a weak government in Kabul against Taliban militants active in parts of the countryside.

In the short-term, they would also be at odds over reconciliation with Afghan insurgents -- another theme of the London conference -- with India opposed to bringing in hardline Islamists it fears would be backed by Pakistan.

Those hopes for a grand bargain were dashed after the November 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants -- prompting India to break off talks and leaving both countries assuming the worst about each other's intentions from Kashmir to Afghanistan.

After a brief thaw in mid-2009, relations have turned so frosty that some fear another big militant attack on India could propel the nuclear-armed countries toward war.

Ahead of the London conference British officials have revived talk of a regional detente -- although they have played down media reports of a planned "regional council."

"Only the countries of the region can decide whether they want to build on the multitude of existing regional bodies, or create something new and Afghanistan-specific," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last week.

Officials have also suggested any regional solution would involve not just India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, but other countries as well, including neighboring Iran and Russia.

But with Pakistan expected to resist Indian involvement -- arguing that India is not an immediate neighbor -- no regional detente is likely without an easing of tensions between the two.

Both Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and his Indian counterpart S.M. Krishna are expected in London, providing an opportunity for a meeting on the sidelines -- though diplomats say none has been arranged so far.

"There is no agenda fixed for that but when you have such conferences they do shake hands on the sidelines," said Wajid Shamsul Hasan, Pakistan's High Commissioner to Britain.

"Since India-Pakistan issues are very close to the heart of the British government, they would like them to have a chance to talk to each other."

But such talks would be useful, he said, only if they led to a resumption of the formal peace process, or composite dialogue.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is believed to be keen to find a way back into talks with Pakistan and only last week replaced his National Security Adviser with a seasoned diplomat seen as more attuned to his approach.

"His instincts are to do something with Pakistan," said Indian analyst Kanti Bajpai who teaches at Oxford University.

He said there was a case to be made for steps toward a regional solution. Pakistan should cede some space to India in Afghanistan while both countries would need to agree on the limits of their roles.

The problem, however, is that even as India has become more open to talks, the political space in Pakistan to engage in a successful dialogue has been narrowing as it tackles Islamist militants and a spate of bombings and gun attacks at home.

Neither the government nor the army can afford to make the kind of concessions offered by former President Pervez Musharraf on Kashmir [ID:nLJ287792] for fear of alienating public opinion already ambivalent about the approach to militants.

"In the end, Musharraf's willingness was a function of the space that he thought he had and his desire to have his own legacy project (on Kashmir)," said Coll. "Today the equation on the Pakistan side is very different."

"That space has been narrowing and narrowing since the Obama administration came in."

At best, India and Pakistan might eventually get back into talks which could prevent tensions between them escalating into a conflict which would torpedo U.S. plans for Afghanistan.

But the regional diplomatic strategy to ease their rivalries in Afghanistan and stabilize Pakistan by allowing it to redefine its relationship with India may have been stillborn months ago.

(Additional reporting by Adrian Croft in London, Krittivas Mukherjee in New Delhi and Robert Birsel in Islamabad; editing by Sanjeev Miglani)