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Neighboring countries ponder a post-occupation Afghanistan
India, Iran and Russia agree "they don't want to do anything to make life difficult for the coalition," said Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a frequent administration adviser on the region. "They still see [the United States] as doing the right thing in beating up on a common enemy.
"But if they were to perceive that the coalition has moved toward actually trying to make a deal with the Taliban to the disadvantage of the three, then the stage is set," Tellis said. "The lines of communication have been put in place."
India, Iran and Russia have their own proxies inside Afghanistan, according to Tellis and other analysts. Karzai's move this year to rid his government of senior officials who opposed Taliban talks or cooperation with Pakistan - including former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and former interior minister Hanif Atmar - led to talk of a resurgent Northern Alliance girding for civil war.
"A variety of parties in Afghanistan have been hoarding weapons and sending family members and money overseas," said a former U.S. intelligence official with long-standing ties to the Northern Alliance groups, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's their version of contingency planning."
European allies also have expressed concern that the administration, in its expressions of enthusiasm for negotiations, is neglecting anti-Taliban power bases in Afghanistan.
"It's an element that is very often forgotten in the description" of a possible political solution, said a senior European official whose government is one of the leading contributors to the coalition effort. "It's sexy in a way to talk to the Taliban," the official said. But "it would not help us at all if we foster talks between the government and the Taliban and forget that the Taliban, as important as they and the Pashtuns are, are not the only group."
The administration sees improved relations between India and Pakistan as "a key piece of the puzzle . . . the heart of the deal" in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official said. But it has only gingerly approached their bilateral differences, and its attempts to woo India and Pakistan separately have served largely to increase each's suspicion of the other and of U.S. intentions.
Their mutual sensitivity led Obama last month to rule out a Pakistan stop on his Asia trip, when all attention will be focused on India. After three days in India, he explained to top Pakistani officials at a White House meeting, he knew they would take it amiss if he spent only a half-day in their country. Instead, he told them, he would travel there separately next year.
Pakistan has said it needs to maintain a strong military presence along its eastern border with India, expending resources that could otherwise be devoted to the robust action the administration seeks against insurgent sanctuaries along the Afghanistan border to the west. Pakistan has asked the administration to intercede with India to resolve a broad range of issues, including the long-standing dispute over Kashmir, while also expressing strong concern about India's intentions in Afghanistan and questioning growing U.S.-India civil nuclear ties.
India, much larger and far more prosperous than its neighbor, has called the Pakistanis paranoid, an assessment many in the administration share. New Delhi has raised concerns with Washington about rapidly increasing U.S. military aid to Pakistan and urged the administration to restrict its assistance to counterterrorism weaponry.
If Pakistan truly wanted to improve relations, the Indians argue, it would move against domestic terrorist groups that have launched repeated attacks inside India, including the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. Obama plans to spend at least half of his three-day Indian visit in Mumbai, where he will commemorate the dozens killed in the attacks.
But while Afghanistan is on the agenda for talks between Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the Indians have made it clear that they neither want nor need American assistance in their bilateral dealings with Pakistan.