India PM in Kabul for talks post bin Laden


India’s prime minister held talks in Kabul on Thursday on the fallout of Osama bin Laden’s death and boosting aid projects in a move likely to raise Pakistani fears about Indian influence in Afghanistan.
Making his first visit to Kabul in six years, Manmohan Singh met President Hamid Karzai as calls grow in the United States for a quicker withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan following the killing of the Al-Qaeda chief.
Any rapid reduction of the US presence in Afghanistan would cause India concern, as it fears the country could become dominated by a Taliban-influenced government friendly towards its arch-rival Pakistan.
Singh said that he and Karzai would “exchange views on developments in the region and our common fight against the scourge of terrorism”.
After more than two decades without sway in Kabul, India swiftly established diplomatic ties with the new government after the 2001 US-led invasion deposed the extremist Taliban, which was allied to Pakistan.
India has since committed $1.3 billion to Afghanistan for projects ranging from new roads and electricity lines to constructing a new parliament.
But the relationship has raised hackles in Islamabad, where the government and military establishment has long considered Afghanistan its own strategic asset to offset the perceived threat from India in the east.
“Any development that strengthens relations between India and Afghanistan will enhance security concerns in Pakistan,” former Pakistani general turned military analyst Talat Masood told AFP.
“Both countries should be working for stability in Afghanistan instead of using it for a proxy confrontation.”
India’s tussle with Pakistan for influence in Afghanistan could sharpen as the United States begins cutting troop numbers from July with the aim of all foreign forces exiting the country by the end of 2014.
“Singh’s visit is just one part of India’s ‘soft touch’ diplomacy towards Afghanistan, which causes jealousy in Pakistan,” said Saeed Naqvi, a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation think-tank in New Delhi.
“India has pursued better links by building schools, hospitals and roads, and that work will now expand, while bin Laden’s death in Pakistan has damaged Islamabad’s reputation.”
Both India and Afghanistan have troubled relations with Pakistan, accusing its military intelligence of supporting and sheltering militant leaders who orchestrate attacks in the region.
Pakistan has been flung into crisis by the May 2 killing of bin Laden by US special forces in the garrison city of Abbottabad, just two hours’ drive from Islamabad, forcing it to deny allegations of incompetence and complicity.
Karzai’s office said the consequences of bin Laden’s death would be a key topic discussed with Singh.
“Since it is a new issue, it is on the agenda,” spokesman Siamak Herawi said.
An Indian government official told AFP that Singh wanted to hear what Karzai had to say about the bin Laden fallout.
“Al-Qaeda is obviously of concern to all of us. We hope it (the death of bin Laden) will affect the operations of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan,” he said.
US Major General John Campbell, who commands NATO-led forces in the east, told reporters this week that the death could encourage Afghan insurgents to lay down their weapons and spur a possible peace settlement to end the war.
Karzai has visited India 10 times since 2002, and was educated for a time in the Indian hill station of Shimla. Singh last visited Afghanistan in 2005.