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With US withdrawal, countries scramble to have a hold in Afghanistan

India is left with very few cards to play in a situation that is quickly evolving


It is all a little quiet in Kabul. Pakistan National Advisor Moeed Yusuf and ISI chief Lt Gen Faiz Hameed are visiting Washington even as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in New Delhi. With less than a month left before the US troops withdraw from Afghanistan, and an increased offensive by the Taliban, various stakeholders are leaving no stone unturned to protect their interests.

This is the first visit by Yusuf to America after he became NSA.

Pakistan is hoping to reset ties—pushed by Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa—by moving from a geo-strategic to geo-economic. This “paradigm shift’’ was articulated at the Islamabad Security Dialogue held earlier this year. Prime Minister Imran Khan formed a 14-member apex committee, under Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, to come up with a blueprint to find ways to formulate a new strategy with the US. While Yusuf will certainly try and find new ways to bond with America using the trade card, Hameed’s presence makes it clear that the agenda will be Kabul.

“Yes, the US secretary of state is in India at the same time that the Pakistani NSA and ISI chief are in the US. The only thing linking the two visits—other than the timing—is that Afghanistan will be a major focus for both (likely the sole focus of the Pakistanis' visit to DC),’’ tweeted Michael Kugelman, deputy director at the Asia Programme at the Wilson Centre.

As the deadline approaches, there is a mad scramble across the region to try and ensure a peaceful handover, despite the fact that hopes of a deal seem to be fading fast. India is increasingly left with very few cards to play in a situation that is quickly evolving. The Afghan government might be hoping for New Delhi to intervene, but it is battling for survival. The proposed visit of the Afghan Army Chief Wali Mohammad Ahmadzai was cancelled due to the situation in Afghanistan, and it seems like Pakistan is emerging as a key player in the region.

On July 16, a new Quad came into being with America, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Representatives of the United States, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan agreed in principle to establish a new quadrilateral diplomatic platform focused on enhancing regional connectivity,’’ a statement by the US state government read. “The parties consider long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan critical to regional connectivity and agree that peace and regional connectivity are mutually reinforcing. Recognising the historic opportunity to open flourishing inter-regional trade routes, the parties intend to cooperate to expand trade, build transit links, and strengthen business-to-business ties. The parties agreed to meet in the coming months to determine the modalities of this cooperation with mutual consensus,” it further read.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had first mover advantage of this idea of regional connectivity, as he brought Iran, Uzbekistan and India together earlier this year to explore the power of trade to bring stability. Even China has jumped into the fray. Pictures of Taliban leader Mullah Baradar Akhund meeting Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on July 27 had gone viral. Baradar, who heads the political wing of the Taliban, travelled to China with a nine-member delegation to meet Wang Yi. "The meetings focused on political, economic and security issues related to the two countries, the current situation in Afghanistan and the peace process," a statement released by the Taliban read.

This meeting comes at a time when China has pledged to join hands with Pakistan to drive out terrorists from Afghanistan. Interestingly, the Pakistan foreign minister is also in China for a visit. The coincidence between the Taliban leadership’s visit to China and that of Qureshi, also an overlap, will not be missed by New Delhi. Afghanistan was a top priority of Qureshi’s visit to China.

“We will work together to combat terrorism and push all major forces in Afghanistan to draw a clear line against terrorism, firmly combat the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and other terrorist forces, and resolutely stop Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed of terrorism,” Wang Yi was quoted as saying saying post the meeting. The Taliban leadership, in their meeting, promised Pakistan that the country has nothing to worry about. China has promised to support intra-Afghan talks and take substantive steps towards political reconciliation and building a broad-based and inclusive political framework. The Baradar-Wang Yi meeting has also given the Taliban the legitimacy that it so craves.

With the situation on the ground shifting fast, New Delhi will need to find a way to keep its foot in the Afghanistan door. It is clear from the substance of the Blinken visit—especially his meeting with the Tibetan government in exile—is a stamp of recognition that America, too, needs India, but for China.

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