By K.P. Nayar
New York, Sept. 28: Under the cover of the United Nations General Assembly, India is tackling what could become the country's biggest neighbourhood challenge in two years' time.
Away from spotlight, unfixed by the prying eyes of Pakistan and its obsession with proxies in Kabul, India has used its heavy attendance at the ongoing General Assembly here to lay the foundations of its presence in Afghanistan after the Americans and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation withdraw their forces in 2014.
Like every year during the General Assembly, the UN is the centre of global diplomacy here this week and the world has sat up and noticed the first trilateral meeting of India, Afghanistan and the US here on Tuesday.
The meeting represented an unusual backtracking on foreign policy by Washington and a rare admission that its long-held attitude of keeping India at arm's length from Kabul was a big mistake.
When Colin Powell visited New Delhi as George W. Bush's secretary of state, he had gone so far as to warn India at a stormy meeting with then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh against South Block's desire to open new consulates in Afghanistan.
That policy was continued by the Obama administration until recently on the ground that a greater Indian presence beyond giving money and some expertise for Kabul's development would anger Pakistan, prompting Islamabad to withhold co-operation with the US on fighting al Qaida's terrorism in Afghanistan.
Partly, the backtracking by Washington was prompted by Afghanistan's determination that it would put geography above geopolitics: President Hamid Karzai insisted during a visit to New Delhi in October last year that his country would sign its first "strategic partnership agreement" with India even before it signed one with Washington.
That agreement, signed between Karzai and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on October 4, 2011, sent a clear message to the Obama administration that its policy of choosing between India and Pakistan to the exclusion of each other within Afghanistan was counter-productive.
So, when external affairs minister S.M. Krishna went to Washington in June this year, Powell's successor twice removed, Hillary Clinton, agreed to a structured process of trilateral consultations among India, Afghanistan and the US. Clinton's agreement belatedly vindicated New Delhi's perseverance on protecting its interests in Kabul and looking beyond the withdrawal by the US and Nato in two years.
Robert Blake, the US assistant secretary of state for South Asia, one the participants in Tuesday's trilateral consultations, said after the meeting that talks at the first such meeting "were specific. We talked a lot about the importance of the transitions in Afghanistan…. We are continuing to work very closely with Afghanistan's neighbours and near neighbours in helping Afghanistan to build a sustainable economy while also supporting a successful security transition in Afghanistan."
Kabul's deputy foreign minister Jawed Ludin, who led the Afghan delegation to the talks, said: "This trilateral marks the further strengthening of Afghanistan's co-operation with two of its key friends and partners who are fully behind the vision of a secure, peaceful, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan living in peace, security, friendship and cooperation with its region and the wider world."
Ludin's statement was significant for the way he equated India and the US as his country's two key friends.
He further said "these discussions also mark the beginning of a series of consultations among our three governments, who share common interests across South and Central Asia and who have pledged to work together on common challenges and opportunities including combating terrorism and violent extremism, reviewing cultural exchanges and increasing regional trade, investment and economic integration."
The meeting is expected to put an end to criticism that India is marginalised in Afghanistan.
Evidence that India's initiatives in Afghanistan ' with or without Washington's support ' are being taken seriously in the US came when the Council on Foreign Relations here immediately organised a closed-door meeting for strategic thinkers on "Afghanistan in Transition".
Ludin spoke at the meeting, but more significantly, the Indian participant who was equated with a minister was India's joint secretary in South Block dealing with Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, Y.K. Sinha. He is India's pointman on Kabul.
Yesterday, Sinha and foreign secretary Ranjan Mathai were invited for a briefing by Ludin for UN Security Council members on the national reconciliation process in Afghanistan. The process is of interest to India because it could rehabilitate the dreaded Taliban unless it is carefully managed.
At the trilateral, another Indian participant was Jawed Ashraf, South Block's joint secretary dealing with the US. Indian officials later had separate discussions with Marc Grossman, the Obama administration's special envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
They also actively participated in the "Istanbul process" where 24 countries are working the develop Afghanistan.
Tags: Afghanistan, Pakistan, terrorist, Punjabi, ISI, India, Iran, Intel, CIA, Musad, Al, Qaeda
Location: Afghanistan (load item map)
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