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India, Russia regain elan of friendship

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FarCenter Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Mon Dec-08-08 05:41 PM
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India, Russia regain elan of friendship
By M K Bhadrakumar -- http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/JL09Df02.html

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The punch line in the joint declaration comes almost innocuously. Sharing their concern over the "deteriorating security situation" in Afghanistan, India and Russia called for a "coherent and a united international commitment" to dealing with the threats emanating from that country. The implied criticism of the US-led war is obvious as also the rejection of the US strategy to keep the war strategy as its exclusive prerogative. The Joint Declaration then goes on to say, "Both sides welcome Russia's initiative to organize an international conference in the framework of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), involving its Member states and Observers."

New Delhi has come out into open support of a regional initiative on Afghanistan, which Washington would have loved to stifle in its cradle. The Indian stance is significant for various reasons. India has decided that there is no need to mark time until the Obama administration finalizes its own new Afghan strategy. It is asserting its own stakes independent of the US strategy. Two, India is identifying with Russia, China and Iran, which is an immensely significant happening in regional politics. Three, India is siding with a Russia-led regional initiative on Afghanistan at a time when various influential American opinion-makers have been floating the idea of a US-led "regional approach" to an Afghan settlement that virtually allows the US to be on the driving seat.

Most certainly, India is implicitly recognizing the SCO's relevance to South Asian security. Afghanistan is a member of the SAARC and could act as a bridge between South Asia and Central Asia. In essence, therefore, India is spurning the US's much-touted "Great Central Asia" strategy that aims at diluting the SCO's role in Central Asia and instead pins hopes on India as a counterweight to the Russian and Chinese regional influence.

It is apparent that India is dissociating from the concerted US policy to keep the SCO out of Afghanistan. Moscow has been vainly striving to carve out a toehold for the SCO as a regional body while Washington has been discouraging Afghan President Hamid Karzai from lending weight to the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group. More than anything else, the fact remains that the Russian initiative on an SCO conference is intended as a challenge to the monopoly that Washington has kept in determining the contours of any Afghan settlement. Indeed, it opens up more possibilities for Karzai to expand his "strategic autonomy" vis-a-vis Washington, which he has been inclined to exercise, even if timidly, of late. Karzai has every reason to cooperate with a regional initiative in which all the major powers surrounding Afghanistan such as Russia, China, India and Iran are associated. The onus is now on the US and Pakistan to explain why they should dissociate.

Of course, the US would have preferred to encourage the on-going Turkish initiative to mediate Afghan-Pakistan talks. The latest three-way round involving the presidents of Turkey, Pakistan and Afghanistan just concluded in Ankara. Washington was happy that Turkey lent a hand in keeping the Afghan peace process as an "in-house" affair - keeping "outsiders" like Russia or Iran at arm's length. The SCO initiative is a needless intrusion, from the US-Turkish perspective.

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