The Telegraph
Wednesday , May 11 , 2011
Since 1st March, 1999
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Message in Kabul trip

New Delhi, May 10: Manmohan Singh is scheduled to visit Afghanistan shortly on a two-day trip coming against the backdrop of Osama bin Laden’s death and security concerns over plans for early pullout of US-led forces.

Sources said the dates for the Prime Minister’s visit had been firmed up but were not being made public because of security concerns.

But sources in the South Block — which houses the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) as well as the defence and the external affairs ministries — believe the visit will be “unprecedented” both in its symbolism and semantics.

Singh last visited Afghanistan in 2005. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been to India half a dozen times since then, has urged New Delhi to schedule Singh’s visit at the earliest.

The sources said Karzai, perceived as having grown closer to Islamabad in recent months, was keen to send a message that New Delhi remained an important player in the region. The entire Pakistani civilian and military top leadership led by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was in Kabul late last month.

The sources also believed Barack Obama’s discussions with Singh on the phone last night on the situation in Afghanistan wasn’t coincidental as it came in the middle of plans for the Prime Minister’s Kabul visit.

Both New Delhi and Kabul are concerned the US-led forces may leave Afghanistan sooner than the mid-2014 deadline, the process hastened by Osama’s killing last week. The exit is slated to begin in the next couple of months.

New Delhi has long felt the forces should stay the course in Afghanistan to weaken the Taliban, but has had little say in the matter because of its unwillingness to put Indian boots on the ground in the war-torn country. South Block is jittery as the Taliban has come to control large swathes of Afghanistan.

There have been several attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan in the past few years, including a blast at its embassy in July 2008. Intelligence agencies suspect the Lashkar-e-Toiba engineered the attack at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI. The Lashkar is also blamed for the Mumbai attacks later that year.

The plans for Singh’s visit come at a time al Qaida has vowed revenge for Osama’s killing. Officials accepted security for the trip remained a concern but said that had not deterred Singh’s resolve to go to Kabul at this crucial juncture.

Singh is likely to reiterate and reassure Karzai of continued Indian investments, now over $1.3 billion. The two sides are also likely to agree on greater co-operation in intelligence sharing.

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