October 09, 2011

It’s over to officials after PM Manmohan Singh broadens ties with Afghans

May 14, Economic Times

Both the unsaid and the said defined the visit of the Indian Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, to Afghanistan over Thursday and Friday, opening up the opportunity for a significant shift in India's engagement with Afghanistan.

The visit, less than a fortnight after death of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, confounded expectations of high rhetoric against Pakistan. Singh's second visit to Afghanistan, after a gap of nearly six years, also sought to plug the gaps in India's engagement with Afghanistan, announcing the intent to establish a strategic partnership that could provide for engagement across political, security and economic fronts. India also substantially increased its aid to Afghanistan from $1.5 billion to $2 billion, a bulk of it ($100 million) for a massive expansion in small development projects.

Though neither Afghan President Hamid Karzai nor Prime Minister Singh shied away from pointing to terrorism emanating from Pakistan, the language remained muted. Despite a provocative media, both maintained their cool. Pakistan was described as a "partner", and the Indian PM went out of his way to provide assurances that India was not out to target Pakistan, either politically or militarily.

While the announcement of a strategic framework signalled India's political intent to depart from a narrow engagement that has, at times, appeared shaped as well as restricted by Indo-Pak tension, its impact will be determined by the political will of both countries to actualise the agreement, including the timeframe for its adoption.

A rapidly shifting political environment within Afghanistan coupled with India's past failure to cultivate and expand its political engagement in Afghanistan suggest the new partnership is a possibility rather than a fait accompli.

Despite an enviable start in its post-2001 bilateral engagement when overwhelming goodwill for India combined with the powerful position of the pro-Indian Northern Alliance, India failed to capitalise on its leverage. Initially limiting its engagement to the Northern Alliance at the cost of neglecting other key political players, India subsequently swung to wholesale support of President Hamid Karzai, making no attempt to broaden its political base or increase its participation in the political space.

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