A resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and increasing casualties for NATO forces are making Afghanistan a security nightmare for India, impacting directly on New Delhi's stakes in the region.
Five years after the ouster of the Pakistan-backed Taliban regime in Kabul was greeted here with undisguised glee, the Indian establishment is now viewing the changing scenario in Afghanistan with alarm.
India, which has vital stakes in a "stable, democratic and prosperous Afghanistan" as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently put it, is worried about the re-groping of the Taliban militia, with its linkages to Al-Qaeda and terrorist outfits targeting Jammu and Kashmir.
The grim situation in Afghanistan is gauged from the public recrimination between Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai. He says Pakistan is not doing enough to stop the Taliban fighters from infiltrating into Afghanistan. Musharraf, feigning outrage, denies it.
But news reports from much of southern Afghanistan say that the Taliban has become a very visible phenomenon even as Karzai is increasingly becoming a prisoner in Kabul. At times, hundreds of Taliban supporters gather for meetings in open fields, and they are increasingly engaging NATO forces.
"India's interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia are significantly threatened by the rise of Taliban, which has been engineered by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)," Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management, a think tank in the capital, said.
"India sees its interests in the region being linked to a stable Kabul under a not-unfriendly dispensation," says Sahni.
The Taliban's resurgence comes at a time when India's profile in Afghanistan is growing and its relations with Kabul are becoming broad-based, straddling diverse sectors including economy, education and technology, in sharp contrast to the situation over five years ago when it had no contact with the Taliban militia. That was when India actively backed the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's most formidable foe.
Afghanistan, for India, is not simply a security issue but a country that can be a crucial link in promoting economic and cultural integration between South Asia and Central Asia.
Fully aware it cannot afford to lose a strategically situated region to unfriendly fundamentalist forces, India has stepped up its diplomatic offensive to sensitise the international community about the dangers from the Taliban and their patronage by Pakistan.
The revival of the Taliban, says Sahni, is part of the long-term Pakistani plan to extend its influence not only in Afghanistan but also in Central Asia.
"The core of our policy should be to expose Pakistan as it is the fountainhead of terror in the region. We should join hands with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and promote a stable, democratic Afghanistan," Sahni suggests.
"The US should use its card with Pakistan to see that it is not radicalised," Ramakant Dwivedi, an expert on Central Asia, said. "The radicalisation of Afghanistan must stop. India should reach out to all ethnic groups in Afghanistan including Pushtuns. We should build on our tremendous goodwill with Pushtuns."
Although India has pledged $650 million for the socio-economic reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan, its options are limited as it is not in favour of sending troops to join the NATO-led forces, which are facing a tough time against the Taliban.
As for democracy, elections have taken place but the Taliban is doing its best to frustrate the nascent democratic institutions. In the process, stability has become a victim in Afghanistan.
"If the staying power of the US-led coalition collapses, India would be affected. There are nearly half a million Talibs in Afghanistan and their supply is limitless," Turkish Ambassador Halil Akana said here recently.
For India, which regained some influence in Afghanistan, a gateway to the resource-rich Central Asia, after the ouster of a hostile Taliban in late 2001, the escalating violence in that country is clearly bad news.
The murder of three Indians in Afghanistan who were engaged in reconstruction projects over the last one year by the Taliban brought into focus the contours of a "new great game" for control of this country.