NEW DELHI: Afghan President Hamid Karzai begins a two-day visit to India on Tuesday that could boost the two countries’ economic ties and lead to an agreement for India to train police in a visit likely to irk Pakistan as tension grows in the region.
India is one of Afghanistan’s biggest bilateral donors, having pledged about $2 billion since the 2001 US led-invasion, for projects from the construction of highways to the building of the Afghan parliament.
India wants to ensure a withdrawal of US troops by 2014 does not lead to a kind of 1990s civil war that spreads militancy across borders. But it also knows its traditional foe Pakistan has far greater influence in Afghanistan.
Karzai’s visit, in which he will meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, has been scheduled for months.
But it comes as Afghanistan appears increasingly frustrated with Pakistan, with many senior officials accusing its intelligence agency of masterminding the assassination last month of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Kabul’s chief peace negotiator with the Taliban.
Karzai himself has said there is a Pakistani link to the killing, and investigators he appointed believe the assassin was Pakistani and the suicide bombing was plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
“At this juncture, the visit will cause great heartburn in Islamabad,” said Saeed Naqvi, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in New Delhi.
“That is unfortunate from the Indian perspective because anything achieved in the visit will be seen by Pakistan as an insult.”
Wary of Pakistan, Indian officials have always said they want to focus on what they like to call “soft power” – economic aid and trade. But India could offer more security training to Afghanistan, something almost certain to annoy Pakistan.
India has already trained a small number of officers from the Afghan National Army at defence institutions in India.
But India treads carefully. It suspects Pakistan involvement in several major attacks, including two bombings of its embassy in Kabul in 2008 and 2009, seen as warnings from Islamabad to stay away from its traditional “backyard”.
Without a land border with Afghanistan and dependent on Pakistan for any overland trade, India knows it influence is limited.
“India will want to play its part in keeping Afghanistan stable, but it is focusing mainly on economic ties,” said C. Raja Mohan, senior fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Policy Research. “It does not does not see itself as a counterbalance to Pakistan. It knows that Pakistan is setting the terms there.”
Karzai may also be wary of upsetting Pakistan, a country crucial for forging any peace deal with the Taliban.
“Karzai wants to sign a strategic deal with India during his trip but it may hurt his recent call on peace talks with Pakistan,” said Ahmad Saidi, a Kabul-based political analyst.
“If Afghanistan want to move forward with a peace process, it should attract Pakistan’s attention.”
India does have historical ties to former Northern Alliance leaders who battled the Taliban in the 1990s.
Some believe that India could increase its influence with these leaders if Afghanistan moves back toward civil war.
But for the moment, trade appears to be what matters.
A consortium led by state-run Steel Authority of India (SAIL) could invest up to $6 billion in mines, railroads and a steel plant in a race with China to lock in raw materials for two of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
The contract for the Hajigak iron ore mines in Bamiyan province is potentially the single biggest foreign investment project in Afghanistan.