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Pakistan, India assess U.S. withdrawal plans

President Obama’s announcement that the United States will pull 33,000 troops out of Afghanistan by the end of next summer was met with muted concern Thursday in India and Pakistan as analysts, policymakers and military brass scrambled to assess the implications for their respective nations.

Though Washington had telegraphed the troop reduction for months, it was larger and faster than many had expected.

In Pakistan, the news was generally applauded. The South Asian nation has bridled at U.S. regional influence, CIA drones in its airspace and what it saw as the American intrusion on its sovereignty in May in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the city of Abbottabad.

It shows that America is committed to withdrawing, said Talat Masood, a retired Pakistani lieutenant general and now a military analyst. “That’s welcome in Pakistan. A gradual withdrawal will be helpful for the region.”

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A reduced U.S. footprint in the region might allow Islamabad to expand its influence in Afghanistan. It also probably would reduce U.S. pressure on Pakistan to sever links between its security forces and homegrown militant groups, some of whom are viewed by Pakistanis as freedom fighters useful in countering neighbor and longtime rival India.

Many in India, on the other hand, expressed concern that the relatively sharp U.S. withdrawal would raise uncertainty in the region, increasing the risk that militancy in Pakistan and Afghanistan would spill across India’s borders.

India is confident its relations with Afghanistan are solid, and the countries share a distrust of Pakistan’s motives and its bid for enhanced influence in war-torn Afghanistan.

Pakistan will want to ensure that India doesn’t align with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, a political rival to tribal groups allied with Islamabad, analysts said. It is also wary of India forming links with groups in southern Afghanistan that might ally with and embolden neighboring Baluch tribesmen seeking independence for Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.

However, India’s ability to counter Pakistani ambitions or otherwise exert its muscle in Afghanistan as U.S. troop numbers decline is severely limited by geography: Pakistan borders Afghanistan; India does not.

Pakistan controls the main road and port access to landlocked Afghanistan, limiting Indian trade links. And Pakistan can block energy pipeline routes to India from Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations.

“There is a limit on what India can do to influence Pakistani-Afghan relations,” said Dipankar Banerjee, a former major general in the Indian army and director of New Delhi’s Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. “And India has to accept those limitations.”

India and Pakistan share an interest in a gradual, measured U.S. withdrawal that gives the region time to adjust and fill the vacuum in an orderly fashion, analysts said. A full-on civil war in Afghanistan would hurt everyone. Nor would Afghans fleeing any such meltdown be as welcome in Pakistan as they were during the 1980s fight against the Soviets, given Pakistan’s economic troubles and domestic terrorism problems.

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India and Pakistan also share an interest in limiting the rise of the Afghan Taliban, albeit for different reasons. India is wary of increased Islamic extremism in the neighborhood that could spark another attack like the terrorist assault on the city of Mumbai in 2008, for which it holds Pakistan at least partly responsible. And Pakistan is concerned that a revitalized Afghan Taliban could embolden its homegrown Taliban movement, further complicating its security issues.

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana in The Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.


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