Seeking Saudi cooperation on Afghanistan and Pakistan

February 28, 2010

saudiPrime Minister Manmohan Singh is making the first visit to Saudi Arabia by an Indian leader since 1982, seeking to build economic ties and to enlist the kingdom’s help in improving regional security. While much of the focus is likely to be on securing oil supplies for India’s growing economy, the visit is also part of the complex manoeuvres by regional players jostling for position on Afghanistan and beyond.

Singh told Saudi journalists ahead of the visit that he would discuss with Saudi King Abdullah how to promote greater stability and security in the region.  “Both King Abdullah and I reject the notion that any cause justifies wanton violence against innocent people. We are strong allies against the scourge of extremism and terrorism that affects global peace and security,” he said.

Junior Foreign Minister Shashi Tharoor also said India could seek Saudi support in persuading Pakistan to act against Pakistan-based Islamist militant groups — later adding however this did not mean looking for Saudi mediation (anathema to India which sees no room for third party involvement in its relationship with Pakistan).

“Saudi Arabia of course has a long and close relationship with Pakistan but that makes Saudi Arabia all the more a valuable interlocutor for us,” he said. ”When we tell them about our experience, Saudi Arabia listens as somebody who is not anyway an enemy of Pakistan but rather as a friend of Pakistan, and therefore I am sure listens with sympathy and concern to a matter of this nature.”

Sunni Saudi Arabia has close ties with Pakistan, seeing it in part as a bulwark against Shiite Iran, its main rival. Analysts say it shares Pakistan’s concerns about Indian and Iranian influence in Afghanistan. It has also been cited as potential mediator with the Taliban. While it has shown little enthusiasm right now to act as a mediator, it is expected to play a powerful role in negotiating any eventual political settlement in Afghanistan.

India, meanwhile, invested heavily in Afghanistan after the fall of the Pakistan-backed Taliban in 2001, and built close ties with the government of President Hamid Karzai. It has been caught on the back foot by talk of reconciliation with the Taliban, which it fears could give Pakistan an opportunity to reassert its old influence over Afghanistan as well as bolstering its position as Washington’s indispensable ally in the region.

Some analysts have argued that India should counter this by building its own relationships with both Saudi Arabia and Iran — C. Raja Mohan made this point as early as May last year. Any improvement in the relationship between India and Saudi Arabia, including a deepening economic inter-dependency, could therefore be significant.

However, just to keep it complicated, the regional uncertainty caused by the Afghan war intersects with a showdown between the west and Iran over its nuclear programme.  India has been torn between supporting the United States in taking a tough line on Iran and developing its own relationship with Tehran.

Islamabad, in contrast, has been steadily improving ties with Iran and may have helped it capture the leader of the Jundollah Sunni rebel group, blamed for bombings in its Sistan-Baluchistan province bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan 

Finally, a few more strands to watch  in the regional chess game:

- India and Pakistan have begun tentative talks to end a diplomatic freeze which followed the November 2008 attack on Mumbai

- But as highlighted by Friday’s attack on Kabul, they may be facing a deepening of their rivalry over Afghanistan

- Regardless of the regional influences, Afghans themselves have to decide what kind of political settlement they want (Julia Mahlejd has a good piece up at Registan on how Afghans feel about reintegration and reconciliation)

- Pakistan has yet to fully explain its arrest of senior Taliban leaders, including Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar

- And don’t forget China, Pakistan’s most loyal ally and India’s rival , which agreed last year to work with the United States to try to stabilise the region.

(Photo: Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Saudi business leaders)

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