India’s Afghan role is hot topic at London conference

London, Jan 26 (Calcutta Tube) Ministers and military experts from around the world are set to gather in the British capital Thursday for a day’s meeting on Afghanistan marked by an unprecedented bid to persuade India to undertake a more high-profile role in the embattled country.

‘I believe that the neighbours of Afghanistan should come together to help sustain an infant democracy like Afghanistan. India has a big role to play,’ British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Monday amid speculation over proposals for a ‘regional stabilisation council’ involving Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.

Although details of the proposals are being kept under wraps, and Islamabad has already opposed involving New Delhi, commentators and strategic experts said NATO powers were looking increasingly at India for fresh ideas to resolve the Afghan crisis.

‘The road to success for NATO’s strategy runs through India,’ wrote a commentator in The Spectator, a respected British magazine that supports the Conservative Party, currently in opposition.

Taking a non-partisan view of Labour Foreign Minister David Miliband’s proposal for the regional council, The Spectator said India’s help was needed to offset Pakistani support for Afghan Taliban groups.

‘…Miliband’s idea deserves all the support it can get,’ it said.

However, experts said New Delhi will reject the proposal if it felt that would open up backdoor attempts to discuss Kashmir.

Western interest in India’s role has grown in tandem with New Delhi’s rising involvement in Afghanistan’s development, particularly its physical and human infrastructure.

A recent poll conducted for western broadcasters ABC News, BBC and the German ARD by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research showed that ordinary Afghans view India more positively than any other country.

In spite of its low profile role, as many as 29 percent of Afghans had a ‘very favourable opinion’ of India, compared to only two percent for Pakistan, seven percent for Britain, eight percent for the US, 17 percent for Germany, and 18 percent for Iran.

‘There is no doubt that India has a very strong bilateral relationship with Afghanistan, building everything from toilets to transmission lines as the Afghans love to say,’ said Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, a leading London-based expert in South Asia.

‘The question is whether India is ready to move from a bilateral to a multilateral relationship with Afghanistan,’ added Roy-Chaudhury, Senior Fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Experts say a multilateral relationship may require India to play a more ‘upfront security role,’ such as in training Afghan police and army – a proposal recently made by the British.

‘Pakistan is certain to oppose India’s role in security training,’ said Roy-Chaudhury.

‘India is indispensable to the future of Afghanistan and may well end up playing a larger role, but for that there has to be a convergence with the international community,’ he added.

Meanwhile, the US government said last week it is working to build ‘the broadest possible global coalition’ comprising countries like India, China and Russia to bring stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

‘There are now 43 ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) allies and partners and more than 84,000 US and international troops working together in Afghanistan,’ said a document released by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

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