Karzai Seeks Stronger Ties With India As Tensions With Pakistan Rise

Afghanistan and India -- united by mutual suspicions of neighboring Pakistan -- are expected to build closer relations today as Afghan President Hamid Karzai starts a two-day visit in New Delhi.

Making his second trip to the Indian capital this year, Karzai's visit had been scheduled months ago. But his talks with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh this week come at a time of growing tensions and when Kabul appears increasingly frustrated with Pakistan.

Senior Afghan officials have accused Pakistan's ISI intelligence service of masterminding the assassination last month of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a powerful factional leader from northern Afghanistan who had been Kabul's chief peace negotiator with the Taliban.

Karzai himself has said there is a Pakistani link to Rabbani's killing. Investigators appointed by Karzai say they think the assassin was from Pakistan and that the suicide bombing that killed Rabbani had been plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta.

'Talk In A New Way'

Karzai's spokesman Hamid Elmi tells RFE/RL that Rabbani's killing, as well as other recent assassinations and violence, have made it necessary for Afghanistan to bolster relations with other countries in South Asia.

"In such a situation, we need to talk in a new way with our friends and the countries in the region about how to bring peace and fight terrorism -- about how to take a common stance against those countries and circles which support terrorism," Elmi said.

Some analysts in India predict that Karzai will try to elevate India's role in stabilizing Afghanistan as a drawdown of U.S.-led troops by 2014 approaches after more than a decade of fighting. They argue that Karzai is losing patience with Pakistan, which both Kabul and New Delhi accuse of funding militant groups to carry out attacks in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir.

Speaking to a group of clerics earlier this month at the presidential palace in Kabul, Karzai said Pakistan was "on the other side" of Kabul's attempts to have peace talks with insurgents.

"Yes, we want peace. But the people of Afghanistan are asking me who I am conducting peace talks with. Who is on the other side of peace talks?" Karzai said. "I have no answer except to say that my partner on the 'other side' of the peace talks is Pakistan. I can't find Mullah Omar. Where is he? I can't find the Taliban council. Where is that council? A messenger from their name came and kills with no questions. So who should we should speak to? To Pakistan."

Soft Power

Wary of Pakistan's reaction, Indian officials say they want to focus on what they call "soft power" -- economic aid and trade. Indeed, Karzai and Singh were expected to sign agreements this week that boost economic ties between Afghanistan and India. India already is one of Afghanistan's biggest bilateral donors, having pledged about $2 billion during the past decade for projects ranging from the construction of highways to the building of the Afghan parliament.

But New Delhi also wants to ensure that the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan does not lead to the kind of civil war seen in Afghanistan in the early 1990s that spreads Islamic militancy across borders in South Asia.

That raises the prospects of Karzai signing an agreement this week that would allow India to provide training to Afghan police and security forces, a deal which would almost certainly anger officials in Pakistan.

Defense institutions in India already have been criticized by Pakistan for training a small number of Afghan National Army officers. Islamabad also has said that Indian highway construction projects in Afghanistan were being used by New Delhi to plant spies in Afghanistan's provincial regions.

written by Ron Synovitz, with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and agency reports