WASHINGTON, Dec 11: Both India and Pakistan – although engaged in a dangerous rivalry for influence in Afghanistan – want President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA)with the United States, says a senior US official.

US Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins told the Senate Foreign Relations on Tuesday that Afghanistan’s regional neighbours, with the exception of Iran, also understood the importance of the accord.

“I understand that President Putin of Russia, President Xi of China, Prime Minister Singh of India and Prime Minister Sharif of Pakistan have all personally urged President Karzai to conclude this agreement,” he said.

“Several of these leaders are no fans of an American military presence in Central Asia, but all recognise that without continued international military and economic support, Afghanistan risks falling back into civil war.”

Commenting on Mr Dobbins’ statement, senior diplomatic observers in Washington noted that despite their differences India and Pakistan agreed on one point: the need for continued US military presence in Afghanistan.

“Both fear that a rapid US withdrawal from Afghanistan can destabilise the entire region,” said a senior South Asian diplomat who did not want to be identified. “And that’s why they want President Karzai to sign the BSA.”

He explained that both countries had their own reasons for wanting the Americans to stay. “While the Pakistanis feel that America’s disengagement could encourage militants inside their country, the Indians fear that it could lead to a Taliban victory in Afghanistan,” he added.

The observers pointed out that powerful elements in Afghanistan also feared such a possibility and that’s why a grand assembly of tribal elders in Kabul last month urged Mr Karzai to sign the deal.

Aware of these sentiments, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey warned on Tuesday that although he was not yet planning a so-called “zero-option” to remove all US forces at the end of 2014, a failure to sign the deal could make it an “unfortunate possibility.”

Ambassador Dobbins further accentuated these fears in his testimony before the Senate panel, pointing out that Kabul’s neighbours fear that a total US withdrawal could lead to a “rise in extremist groups, outflow of refugees and disruptions in commerce that would threaten the region as a whole.”

Mr Dobbins noted that President Karzai would start a four-day visit to India on Thursday and hoped that New Delhi would persuade him to sign theBSA. Mr Karzai’s refusal to sign the deal has outraged US lawmakers and they expressed their indignation with him at Tuesday’s hearing as well.

“This brinksmanship is unwarranted and, frankly, insulting to the sacrifices made by the US military and taxpayers, and is not in Afghanistan’s best interest,” said Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Bob Corker, the top Republican on the committee, accused Mr Karzai of “flakiness” and of being an “irrational and irresponsible partner.”

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