As it prepares for a withdrawal of its combat forces in Afghanistan, the United States has been particularly vocal about a larger Indian role in that country. The Strategic Partnership Agreement between India and Afghanistan is confirmation that New Delhi is willing to take on such a role. India, with a commitment of $1.2 billion through 2013, is already the sixth largest donor to Afghanistan, It has been involved in diverse development projects in infrastructure, education and agriculture. The agreement signed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi goes beyond such development and humanitarian assistance. India is to also assist “as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity building programmes for the Afghan National Security Forces.” In addition, the two countries will hold a regular strategic dialogue “with the aim of intensifying mutual efforts towards strengthening regional peace and security.” Significantly, two MoUs were also signed for the development of minerals and natural gas in Afghanistan, which is said to hold mineral deposits worth $1 trillion. If all this is a reflection of friendly ties between India and Afghanistan, it comes with the discomforting knowledge of the fraught nature of geopolitics in the region. Pakistan is bound to view the agreement with unease — the Pakistani security establishment has been suspicious even of India's development assistance to its western neighbour.

The suspicion is quite self-serving: it heightens the bogey of “Indian encirclement” of Pakistan, provides justification to the Pakistan Army's idea of building “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, and strengthens the military's position within Pakistan. That the India-Afghanistan agreement has come at a time when Afghan-Pakistan relations are at a particularly low point does not help. After the killing of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, linked by both Kabul and the U.S. to Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, President Karzai has called off reconciliation talks with the Taliban. But this makes it more important for India to dispel the notion that its increasing involvement in Afghanistan is aimed at marginalising Pakistan. India has legitimate interests in Afghanistan and the friendly ties between the two run deep into the past. Equally, Pakistan and Afghanistan are unique neighbours, with shared bonds of culture, ethnicity, language, and religion. As President Karzai himself pointed out, while India is “a friend” to Afghanistan, Pakistan is a “twin brother.” In the interests of regional peace, New Delhi must take this opportunity to declare a willingness to work with Pakistan for stability in Afghanistan.

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