United States President Barack Obama's appointment of Senator John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State during his second term of office should have the Indian foreign policy establishment and the mandarins in South Block seriously worried.
Widely perceived as being a 'friend of Pakistan' and a co-author of the Kerry - Lugar Bill enacted in 2009 to enhance cooperation with and aid to Pakistan, Kerry will oversee the US drawdown in Afghanistan over the next 18 months. And despite all the evidence to indicate that Pakistan has not only not helped but actually hindered the US and ISAF efforts to stabilise Afghanistan, Islamabad is prettily poised to become the major player in that country by 2014.
Afghanistan continues to face an existential threat from terrorism. The infrastructure of terror remains largely intact in the region drawing upon ideological, financial and logistical support from beyond its borders. The terrorism syndicate, which includes the Al-Qaida, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Tayiba and other similar groups like the Haqqanis, is active in the region and is far from being isolated.
While the security situation continues to remain fragile, the United States' Coalition Support Fund will give Pakistan $700 million. The Coalition Support Fund was designed in 2001 to reimburse countries for the cost of counterinsurgency operations. Pakistan is effectively moving to secure its national interests after the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is despite earlier tough US administration speak about Pakistan not cooperating in the fight against terrorism.
Both the US and Pakistani capitals are already engaged in trying to remove the terror sponsor tag (all but officially imposed on Pakistan when Osama bin Laden was discovered in the Pak army's backyard) from Pakistan.
The process began with the Statement of Interest filed by the US State Department seeking immunity for the ISI and two former DGs of ISI in the Eastern District Court of New York, in the civil case of wrongful death filed by US family members of victims of the November 26, 2008, Mumbai terror attacks, the most deadly terrorist attacks since 9/11.
An incensed New Delhi protested strongly but found little resonance. "From our perspective, this decision is a matter of deep and abiding concern," the Indian foreign office spokesman said. "The leadership of the US has publicly stated its commitment to counter terrorism, to dismantle terrorist infrastructure in Pakistan and to bring those responsible for the Mumbai terror attacks to justice. In this context the decision of the US authorities in this case is a cause of serious disappointment."
"For India, it remains of vital importance that justice is done and that those who organised and perpetrated this horrible crime be brought to justice, irrespective of the jurisdiction under which they may reside or be operating.
It cannot be that any organisation, State or non-State, that sponsors terrorism enjoys immunity," the spokesman said in one of the most strong denunciations of US policy.
The removal of the terrorist state tag from official Pakistani entities and allowing Islamabad a free run in negotiations on Afghanistan's future has strained India-US relations.
For India, which has huge stakes in Afghanistan, this is not good news, giving as it does the Pakistan establishment's efforts, quietly spearheaded by army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the thumbs up to regain what it considers its 'strategic space'. Kayani is quietly asserting Islamabad's authority over every possible outcome in Kabul, and actively involving the Taliban in a dialogue to become part of the post-2014 legitimate Afghan establishment, a position it lost out on in 2002.
For the United States also, it reflects a massive failure to make any real strategic impact for the better in spite of hundreds of billions of dollars being spent in its longest overseas combat. The Taliban in Afghanistan's government will be a throwback to the 1996 through 2001 era, which saw the twin towers destroyed and the Pentagon spectacularly attacked. It will showcase Washington as an unreliable ally through the rest of a gradually democratizing Asia.
India is not happy about Taliban participation in the talks in Chantilly outside Paris recently, but finds few takers for its misgivings in Washington which is desperate to exit a hugely unpopular and draining combat theatre.
Giving voice to what would be the 'best case scenario' for India in these circumstances, a former diplomat and security analyst said diverse Afghan groups in a fratricidal war fighting each other would probably have the least negative fallout on India and the region's security. Otherwise, with another massive influx of lethal weaponry and nobody in control, the situation appears set for a huge conflagration from which India would inevitably face very dangerous security consequences.
Islamabad, already extremely wary about India's intentions in Kabul and influence with the Afghan people (having poured in over two billion dollars in development projects and aid) would ensure New Delhi would have to pay for the privilege of staying engaged with Kabul. There are reports that an Indian consortium has finalised financing for an ambitious project to develop the Hajigak iron ore mines. This 13 billion dollar project is likely to face huge problems should players from a Pakistan - backed Taliban emerge in the forefront of the Afghan political establishment replacing the Hamid Karzai regime, also in 2014.
Nilova Roy Chaudhury, a senior journalist, heads the Symbiosis-IRGAmag project, part of the Symbiosis School of International Studies.