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India, Afghans Sign Strategic Pact Amid Strain With Pakistan

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai
Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president. Photographer: Kimimasa Mayama/Bloomberg

India and Afghanistan signed a strategic partnership agreement that officials of their governments say will allow for Indian training of Afghan troops in coming years, a step that may exacerbate the two countries’ tensions with Pakistan.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed the accord yesterday in New Delhi, a day after Karzai accused Pakistan in a televised speech of foiling his attempts to make peace with Taliban insurgents by secretly backing their war effort. The agreement is not directed at Pakistan, Karzai said today, without giving details on the type or scale of training being discussed.

After years in which Karzai kept India at arm’s length on security issues, his willingness to seek military training “is a joint message he and the Americans are sending to Pakistan that, if you don’t come on board and stop supporting these guerrillas, we have an option to strengthen ties with India,” Amin Saikal, an Afghan political scientist at Australian National University, said yesterday in a phone interview.

Saikal and other analysts say the growing strains are part of an “end-game” in which Pakistan is seeking to keep or increase its influence in Afghanistan as the U.S. tries to reduce its commitment to the decade-long war, the longest-ever conflict for the U.S. military. While India has drawn closer to Afghanistan with promises of new aid and an offer to invest billions of dollars in mining a large iron deposit, Pakistani leaders have traded top-level visits with China’s leaders, seeking closer ties.

Proxy Forces

As President Barack Obama tries to withdraw the bulk of America’s 98,000 troops in Afghanistan within three years, the U.S. and Karzai have publicly increased pressure on Pakistan to end what they and independent analysts say is its policy of quietly backing the Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

Pakistan’s army for years has denied reports by scholars -- and last month by the top U.S. military commander -- that it supports Islamic guerrillas as proxy forces for attacks on Afghanistan and India. Pakistan has fought three wars with India and its officials say the army would regard any Indian security presence in Afghanistan as a threat to Pakistan.

While “Pakistan won’t object to any Indian role in helping the development” of Afghanistan, “any military or intelligence role for India will not be tolerable for Pakistan,” Pakistani foreign policy analyst and former ambassador Maleeha Lodi said in an interview in July. Pakistan’s security policies are set by its politically powerful army, which Lodi said retains “its desire to prevent any kind of strategic encirclement” through an Indian-Afghan security relationship.

Embassy Attack

The new Indian-Afghan agreement largely enshrines joint projects already underway, Karzai said today in a speech sponsored by a New Delhi think tank, the Observer Research Foundation. It envisions Indian help “to train our police for us, to train our army for us, to train thousands of Afghan youth who are right now studying in India,” he said.

While U.S.-led forces currently train Afghan troops, their main combat force is scheduled to withdraw by 2014.

Strains between Pakistan and both Karzai’s government and the U.S. have increased following guerrilla attacks in the Afghan capital last month that officials in Kabul and Washington say were sponsored by Pakistan. On Sept. 13, Taliban fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades into the U.S. Embassy compound, and a week later a suicide bomber killed Karzai’s chief envoy for talks with the Taliban, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Iron Deposit

Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said before retiring at the end of September that Pakistan’s main spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, or ISI, for years has supported “proxy terrorist organizations,” including the Haqqani guerrillas and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Karzai’s office said last week it has proof that Pakistan-based Taliban sent the bomber that killed Rabbani. Pakistan denied both accusations and last week summoned a conference of all political parties to denounce them.

As the U.S. and Afghan tensions with Pakistan have grown this year, India’s Singh visited in May to offer an additional $500 million in development aid, following more than $1 billion it has spent since 2002.

India’s government encouraged a group of its steel and mining companies to bid for the estimated 1.8 billion metric tons of ore at Hajigak, 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Kabul. The tender is the biggest on offer in a country that the U.S. government estimated last year holds $1 trillion in untapped minerals.

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