Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent trip to India portends a new development. During the visit, the two countries signed a 'strategic partnership' pact which entailed agreements on counter-terrorism cooperation, training of Afghan security forces and increased trade.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement portrayed India's vision of ties with Afghanistan with the emphasis on both the old historical ties as well as the newer strategic ones. "Our cooperation with Afghanistan is an open book. We have civilizational links, and we are both here to stay. India will stand by the people of Afghanistan as they prepare to assume the responsibility for their governance and security after the withdrawal of international forces in 2014."
The recent pact is supposed to create "an institutional framework" for using existing ties to build for the future. Currently India is one of the largest donors to Afghanistan, providing around $2 billion in aid which has mainly been focused on economic and development-related issues.
For the last decade, mainly in order to assuage Pakistan, U.S. requested that India limit its Afghan aid and assistance to areas like infrastructure (building highways, roads and government buildings) health (health clinics and doctors) and education (scholarships for Afghan students to study in India) -- an area not new in India-Afghan ties. For decades Afghans have studied in India, including President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
India has also trained some Afghan military officers previously at its defense colleges. Trade is a key part of India-Afghan ties, though Pakistan is not keen on allowing transit trade, forcing India and Afghanistan to trade through Iran or Central Asian countries. Indian companies are, however, interested in investing in Afghanistan and a consortium of Indian steel companies led by Steel Authority of India Limited (SAIL) is in a race with their Chinese counterparts for the Hagijak iron ore mines deal.
While President Karzai's trip to India has been many months in the making, its timing is critical as it comes in the backdrop of tense ties between Pakistan and Afghanistan, frictions in the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and the recent assassination of former Afghan President and head of the Afghan Peace Council, Burhanuddin Rabbani. Mr Rabbani recently visited India in mid-July along with a 15-member delegation and held talks with top Indian officials. During the 1990s, India supported the Northern Alliance parties in Afghanistan and developed close ties not only to Mr Rabbani but to other Afghan leaders.
Both India and Afghanistan are concerned about a significant withdrawal of American and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014 and both fear the return of the Taliban. Kabul's pursuit of a strategic partnership with New Delhi, the first with any country, needs to be seen in this context. In this backdrop, Mr Karzai's second trip to India in 2011 shows the desire for Afghanistan's policymakers to build close ties with regional allies in order to prepare for the future. As Mr Karzai stated, "Afghanistan recognizes the danger this region is facing through terrorism and the radicalism that is being used as an instrument of policy against civilians and innocent citizens of our country."
At the same time, both Kabul and New Delhi realize that ties with Rawalpindi-Islamabad are critical for peace in Afghanistan. This was reflected in President Karzai's recent statement that instead of speaking with the Taliban, Afghanistan should speak with Pakistan. And in his statement in New Delhi that "Pakistan is our twin brother, India is a great friend. The agreement we signed with our friend will not affect our brother." This is not the first time President Karzai has made these remarks referring to Pakistan as a twin and India as a friend.
Whether these remarks will reassure Pakistan's policy makers is a different matter. As veteran Pakistani analyst, Hasan Askari Rizvi remarked "there is so much Indian obsession in Pakistan that with every minor Indian move, there is panic." Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani's statement on the India-Afghan pact was that "Both are sovereign countries, they have the right to do whatever they want to." This reminded one of former Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi's remarks in 2009 when he said that Pakistan was "not concerned" by close India-U.S. ties as U.S. and Pakistan had been allies for 60 years. Behind these statements, the reality is that of Pakistani concerns about close ties between U.S. and Pakistan's neighbors -- India and Afghanistan -- which are perceived in Islamabad-Rawalpindi as being at Pakistan's expense.
Pakistan has always feared strategic encirclement -- the oft-quoted 'pincer movement' -- if India and Afghanistan develop close ties. In response, Pakistan's strategists have desired a pro-Pakistan (and anti-India) Afghan government which has led them down the path of seeking proxies, whether mujahideen, Afghan Taliban or the Haqqani network.
Pakistan has no reason to fear close ties between India and Afghanistan, as both countries benefit from and seek a stable, democratic and prosperous Pakistan. However, in trying to prevent India and Afghanistan from building close ties -- especially in the economic arena -- Pakistan may end up being left behind, instead of being encircled.
Similarly, while U.S. policymakers should be attuned to Pakistan's concerns, they should not make this a zero sum game where any close strategic ties between India and Afghanistan are not supported simply because of Pakistan. U.S. benefits from close ties between India and Afghanistan and so would Pakistan, if only it took off its blinkered India-centric glasses.