NEW DELHI // The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, on a two-day visit to New Delhi, agreed to increase security cooperation with India yesterday, part of a larger push by the Afghan leader for increased ties amid rising tension between Afghanistan and India's arch-rival, Pakistan.
Mr Karzai's visit, which also highlights India's pursuit of a major role in Afghanistan, comes after heightened anti-Pakistani rhetoric in Afghanistan following the assassination of the country's's top peacemaker last month.
Afghan officials say the killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former president and head of the High Peace Council, was planned by Pakistan-supported Taliban militants in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, speaking after meeting Mr Karzai, condemned Mr Rabbani's assassination and, in a veiled reference to Pakistan's involvement in his killing, said Afghans "deserve to live in peace and decide their future themselves, without outside interference, coercion and intimidation". Mr Karzai, in a televised address the day before he left for New Delhi, also had stern words for Pakistan: "After all the destruction and misery, the double game towards Afghanistan and the use of terrorism as an excuse still continue."
Observers said Mr Karzai's India tour is aimed at sending Pakistan the message that Afghanistan is capable of pursuing an independent foreign policy free of Pakistani influence, and is willing to reach out even to Pakistan's rivals.
Mangal Sherzad, a professor at Nangarhar University in eastern Afghanistan, said: "Karzai is making this visit in a very crucial time, when Afghanistan-Pakistan relations are under storm clouds, and perhaps Karzai thinks it is the right time to get help from India."
Yesterday Mr Singh and Mr Karzai signed a memoranda of understanding that would grant Indian companies mining and hydrocarbon contracts for up to US$6 billion (Dh22bn), with investments in railroads, mines and a steel plant in Bamiyan province.
In May, India added $500 million in aid to the $1.5bn it is already spending on infrastructure and police training. On Monday, India offered to further help train Afghan police to prevent terrorist attacks.
Saeed Naqvi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank where Mr Karzai will deliver a speech today, believes that the growing unpopularity of Pakistan provides an opportunity for India. While Pakistan has been blamed by Afghans for much of the violence in their country, India is seen as a benign benefactor, he said: "Indians have done nothing but build hospitals and schools."
With the US looking to withdraw most of its troops and the US Congress looking to curtail foreign aid, Afghanistan has few options for economic aid. "This is diplomacy by default," said Mr Naqvi. "India has a non-lethal profile in Afghanistan, which is working to their advantage now."
Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, the senior fellow for South Asia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said India is reaping the benefits of playing a slow game of influence in Afghanistan. "India's policy towards Afghanistan as a country has been that it can't have an exit strategy. Unlike western countries, India has long-term interests."
Mr Roy-Chaudhury worries, however, that the most controversial deal signed during the visit, an agreement to increase military training of Afghan forces by India, could lead to increased violence if not properly handled.
While India has been training Afghan police officers in India for some time, a new deal would reportedly include sending Indian military trainers to Afghanistan, a move sure to upset Islamabad.
He is also cautious about reading too much into Mr Karzai's relationship with India. "It is inconceivable that we are looking at a new strategy focusing more on India," Mr Roy-Chaudhry said. "Karzai told Singh that Kabul was his second home, but he has also called Pakistan [Afghanistan's] conjoined twin. India is important, but Pakistan is more important to Afghanistan."
Pakistan has in recent weeks also faced pressure from US officials, who said last month's 20-hour assault on the US Embassy in Kabul was the work of the Haqqani network, a militant group the US says is backed by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.
* Erin Cunningham reported from Kabul