New Delhi: In about a week, US President Barack Obama will take oath of office for a second term, flanked by a new line-up of cabinet colleagues expected to oversee crucial changes in US policy including the 2014 withdrawing of troops in Afghanistan, a development that will impact India’s security environment.

Obama has nominated head of the Senate foreign relations committee John Kerry for the post of secretary of state to replace incumbent Hillary Clinton, while former Vietnam war veteran and Republican Chuck Hagel has been named to take the place of defence secretary Leon Panetta. The Central Intelligence Agency is likely to be headed by John Brennan, currently Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser in his capacity as deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism.

These three constitute Obama’s core security team in his second term and are expected to supervise the withdrawal of some 66,000 US troops who have been in Afghanistan for over a decade. Public support for the long war—especially after the killing of Al-Qaeda ideologue and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden in May 2011 and mounting troop casualties—has been dwindling.

A CNN poll in September found only 3% Americans naming Afghanistan as one of the important issues facing the US and 55% favouring the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan before 2014.

In New Delhi, Kerry is seen as “more sympathetic" to India’s arch rival Pakistan while Hagel is viewed as “very well disposed towards India."

“But both will have to implement the policy drawn up by President Obama, so its not black and white," said a person familiar with the matter in New Delhi—a view supported by Washington analysts. this person declined to be named.

“Both Kerry and Hagel are undoubtedly aware of Indian concerns about the Taliban," said Daniel Markey, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. “Both would be eager to expand US-India ties. However, my sense is that neither man, and especially Hagel, would see Indian concerns about post-2014 Afghanistan and the deteriorating situation there as a reason to keep US forces deployed one day longer than otherwise necessary. Both men, like the White House they serve, will be looking for ways to make a troop reduction possible even if that means ceding a greater measure of power to the Taliban as part of a peace deal," Markey said in emailed comments.

Media reports from Washington say Obama and visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Friday agreed to speed up the exit of international troops during their talks. Other media reports earlier this month said the Obama administration has been considering a residual US force of between 3,000 and 9,000 troops—far fewer than some US commanders propose—to conduct counterterrorism operations and to train and assist Afghan forces after the draw down in 2014.

Yet another report suggests the US government is also mulling a complete withdrawal after 2014, a move that some experts say will be disastrous for the weak Afghan central government and its fledgling security apparatus.

Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow, at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think-tank, was of the view that Clinton was “clear-eyed about the threat the Taliban posed to the country" and was determined that the human rights gains made in the country, particularly for women, would be preserved.

“Senator Kerry, on the other hand, has demonstrated unusual patience with Pakistan, despite reports of its continued support for the Haqqani network and Taliban insurgents. Indian concern that Kerry will seek to placate Pakistan at the expense of Afghanistan’s future may well be justified," she said in an emailed response.

The US’ Afghan policy seems to be putting it at odds with India, described as a “strategic partner" of Washington. Washington’s move to let off the hook, two former generals of Pakistan military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, for their alleged involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attacks met with a sharp reaction from India. Speculation in New Delhi has it that Washington decided on this course of action to enlist Pakistan’s cooperation on Afghanistan.

India’s concerns also stem from the fact that the Taliban—seen as proxy for Pakistan—will be in a position to call the shots in a new administration in Kabul put together after talks between the US, Afghan and Taliban representatives in time for American troops to withdraw. India has long held the view that there are no “good" and “bad" Taliban, the former group being the ones the US and its Western allies are trying to lure into a dialogue.

Another person close to the developments in New Delhi noted, requesting anonymity, said that the December meeting between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban near Paris had sought to blur the “red lines" or conditions agreed to by the international community as the basis for bringing the Taliban into the Afghan mainstream. This included acceptance of the Afghan constitution. According to news reports, the Taliban representatives sought a new Afghan constitution as they say the current one was influenced by western governments when it was drawn up a decade ago.

Former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal said “the fact that the Taliban seem getting ready to be part of Afghan government institutions and the use of Pakistan as a facilitator in this process, shows that Pakistan’s interests would be looked after in any future dispensation in Afghanistan."

Pakistan, alongwith Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were the main backers of the Sunni-Pashtun Taliban when it was in power in Kabul between 1996 and 2001 when it was ousted by the US-led troops. Pakistan has always wanted a friendly government in Kabul that it can turn to for support in case of a war with India. India, on its part, has been supporting Afghanistan in its reconstruction efforts in a move to ensure its interests are protected.

Lalit Mansingh, India’s former ambassador to the US, pointed out that Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which brought out a roadmap for the Afghan peace process late last year, envisioned the incorporation of the Taliban into the “power structures of the (Afghan) state".

“More importantly, the peace plan seems to give primacy to Pakistan’s role and nothing to India despite the fact that India has invested a good deal of money for aid and reconstruction in Afghanistan," Mansingh said. According to previous plans outlined by the US, India was to have a role in post 2014 Afghanistan but now that seems to have been abandoned and “India will need to rethink its strategy," Mansingh said.

Another worry for India was the impact of a Taliban presence in Kabul on the security situation in Indian-administered Kashmir, where an Islamist insurgency broke out in 1989. Though the levels of violence have fallen sharply in the past few years, New Delhi apprehends an upsurge post 2014.

“Once the Taliban is in Kabul, Pakistan could pull out troops from its western border and move them towards the border with India. In this scenario, Pakistani troops could try and help militants sneak into Kashmir under the cover of firing and shelling along the border," Mansingh said pointing to current violations of a 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two countries. Militant Islamist groups in the region have previously included Kashmir as part of their agenda, Mansingh said.

Also worrisome for India is the impending exit of Karzai in 2014 as president of Afghanistan. Elections are due in Afghanistan next year and Karzai, who is nearing the end of his second term in office, has said in the past that he would not seek a third term. The Indian government has been dealing with him for well over a decade and the fact that Karzai was educated in India only added to comfort levels.

“All will depend on the configuration of the new Afghan administration and how much of it will be dominated by the Taliban," Sibal said.

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