The last time an Indian minister set foot in Kandahar, in 1999, it was an act under duress. Three dangerous militants, who have since lived up to their reputation, were delivered to the hijackers of an Indian Airlines flight in exchange for the safety of the passengers. India has never been able to live down that trade-off or to forget the lessons that the episode in Kandahar held out. For one, the links of the terror network that runs across Afghanistan and Pakistan; and two, how diplomacy had been impaired by India’s ideological opposition to the Taliban government then in power in Afghanistan. The visit of the foreign affairs minister, Salman Khurshid, to Afghanistan shows how India, in the tumultuous intervening years, has modulated its policy, getting around its blind spots. Although still apprehensive of the Taliban, India no longer objects to Hamid Karzai’s reconciliation efforts, seeing it as the best possible way to accommodate sections of the Taliban who are willing to give peace a chance. This spirit of accommodation has been backed by a carefully balanced approach to Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts that have seen a steady inflow of Indian funds into education and infrastructure. Mr Khurshid’s presence at the inauguration of the Afghan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University, built partly from Indian funds, was an indication of how integral India has become to Afghanistan’s return to normalcy.
Both approaches may benefit India in the long run while its neighbour goes through its painful transition. Mr Khurshid has made it plain that India supports Mr Karzai’s efforts to deepen democracy and his upholding of Afghanistan’s sovereign status in his negotiations with the United States of America. He has also made it clear that although India understands Afghanistan’s defence needs, it will not be rushed into arms supply. These are principles any self-respecting government would wish of its counterpart in a neighbouring country. Unfortunately, both countries are on the verge of a democratic exercise that may change the complexion of their interaction.