In a move that signals India's resolve to stay the course in Afghanistan after NATO troops withdraw in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh signed a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai in New Delhi last week. The SPA includes a major security component, with India "agreeing to assist, as mutually determined, in the training, equipping and capacity-building programs for Afghan National Security Forces." That this was the first security pact of any kind signed by India on the subcontinent was not lost on Islamabad, with former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf immediately dubbing the pact "anti-Pakistan." However, India's plans in Afghanistan go well beyond a simplistic security rubric and are increasingly driven by longer-term geo-economic interests.
India moved quickly in the post-Taliban era to restore Indo-Afghan ties to their traditional level of warmth. New Delhi has since spent more than $1.5 billion on reconstruction projects, making it the sixth-largest international donor to Afghanistan. India's efforts, ranging from setting up mobile-telephone networks to providing biscuits for Afghan schoolchildren, coupled with the popularity of Indian television programs give New Delhi considerable soft power in a region where it has historically enjoyed influence. However, with the exception of deploying a few paramilitary troops to protect Indian establishments in Afghanistan, New Delhi has refused to join the NATO mission and has kept its interaction with the nascent Afghan security structure low-key.
Now it seems India is shedding its past inhibitions and wishes to publicly announce its role in enhancing the capabilities of the Afghan security services. Given its own experience as a multi-ethnic state, India is uniquely positioned to build human security infrastructure in Afghanistan, something the U.S. has highlighted in the past in urging India to do more in Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, Washington has welcomed the SPA and lauded India's role in helping develop the Afghan National Army (ANA). Indeed some observers actually suggest that the SPA can be construed as the new "big idea" in Indo-U.S. relations, which are perceived to have slowed since the 2005 nuclear deal. By this view, India is now "stepping up to the role" Washington wants it to play as part of the grand narrative of the "new silk road" announced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Chennai earlier this year.