Afghanistan and India, united by mutual suspicions of neighboring Pakistan, took steps to build closer relations as Afghan President Hamid Karzai began a two-day visit in New Delhi.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Karzai signed a strategic partnership agreement -- a formal tightening of links that is expected to raise concerns in Pakistan about India's influence in Afghanistan.
At a joint press conference following the signing of the agreement, Singh said Afghanistan could rely on India as a partner as it rebuilds and recovers from more than a decade of war.
"India stands by the people of Afghanistan in their journey towards capacity-building, reconstruction, development, and peace," Singh said. "We will do all that is within our means to help Afghanistan."
The agreement is one of several being negotiated by Kabul, including one with the United States, that are part of an Afghan bid for greater security as NATO-led troops start heading home.
Karzai described Afghanistan as a country that wants peace and cooperation with its neighbors throughout the region.
"Afghanistan will be a member of this region and of the international community and will aspire to a life that is free of violence and extremism and will seek cooperation and understanding of members of this region, including our other neighbors," Karzai said.
Singh said the talks underlined growing cooperation between Afghanistan and India, and that their work together was "an open book." He said the strategic partnership outlined a strategy to work together on security, economic ties, and education.
Karzai said after meeting with Singh that the strategic partnership agreement "is putting in words an already existing and active partnership between the two countries." He welcomed the move to solidify that cooperation in writing -- saying India had long been a friend of Afghanistan, but also a major contributor to reconstruction in Afghanistan during the past decade.
The two also signed two memorandums of understanding that are expected to bolster economic ties. Those agreements focus cooperation to develop mineral and hydrocarbon resources in Afghanistan.
Making his second trip to the Indian capital this year, Karzai's visit was scheduled months ago. But his talks with the Indian prime minister come at a time of growing tensions and when Kabul appears increasingly frustrated with Pakistan.
Senior Afghan officials have accused Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) service of masterminding the assassination last month of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a powerful factional leader from northern Afghanistan who had been Kabul's chief peace negotiator with the Taliban.
Karzai himself has said there is a Pakistani link to Rabbani's killing. Investigators appointed by Karzai say they think the assassin was from Pakistan and that the suicide bombing that killed Rabbani had been plotted in the Pakistani city of Quetta.
Afghanistan's intelligence agency says Pakistan has officially refused to cooperate with the investigation into Rabbani's death. However, Pakistan's ambassador to Kabul said a letter he wrote to investigators promised to help.
Afghan demonstrators shout anti-Pakistani slogans during a protest in Kabul on October 2.
'Talk In A New Way'
Karzai spokesman Hamid Elmi told RFE/RL that Rabbani's killing, as well as other recent assassinations and violence, had made it necessary for Afghanistan to bolster relations with other countries in South Asia.
"In such a situation, we need to talk in a new way with our friends and the countries in the region about how to bring peace and fight terrorism -- about how to take a common stance against those countries and circles which support terrorism," Elmi said.
Some analysts in India predict that Karzai will try to elevate India's role in stabilizing Afghanistan as a drawdown of U.S.-led troops by 2014 approaches after more than a decade of fighting. They argue that Karzai is losing patience with Pakistan, which both Kabul and New Delhi accuse of funding militant groups to carry out attacks in Afghanistan and India-administered Kashmir.
Rabbani's killing in Kabul on September 20 has prompted Karzai to reconsider his strategy for peace negotiations with the Taliban. Speaking to a group of clerics earlier this month at the presidential palace in Kabul, Karzai said Pakistan was "on the other side" of Kabul's attempts to have peace talks with insurgents.
"Yes, we want peace. But the people of Afghanistan are asking me who I am conducting peace talks with. Who is on the other side of peace talks?" Karzai said. "I have no answer except to say that my partner on the 'other side' of the peace talks is Pakistan. I can't find Mullah Omar. Where is he? I can't find the Taliban council. Where is that council? A messenger from their name came and kills with no questions. So who should we should speak to? To Pakistan."
In a televised address from Kabul on October 3, Karzai condemned Pakistan for what he called playing a "double game" on terrorism in Afghanistan.
Wary of Pakistan's reaction to improved strategic relations between New Delhi and Kabul, Indian officials have said they want to focus on what they call "soft power" -- economic aid and trade.
India is already one of Afghanistan's biggest bilateral donors, having pledged about $2 billion during the past decade for projects ranging from the construction of highways to the building of the Afghan parliament.
But New Delhi also wants to ensure that the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan does not lead to the kind of civil war seen in Afghanistan in the early 1990s that spreads Islamic militancy across borders in South Asia.
That raises the prospects of Karzai signing an agreement this week that would allow India to provide training to Afghan police and security forces, a deal which would almost certainly anger officials in Pakistan.
Defense institutions in India already have been criticized by Pakistan for training a small number of Afghan National Army officers. Islamabad also has said that Indian highway-construction projects in Afghanistan were being used by New Delhi to plant spies in Afghanistan's provincial regions.
written by Ron Synovitz, with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan and agency reports