Afghanistan's new leadership team is moving quickly to reopen contacts with India. Top members of the Afghan provisional council have already visited New Delhi to attract reconstruction assistance. At the same time, some Afghan officials are striving to reassure Pakistan that a restoration of ties with India will not pose a threat to Islamabad.
The Afghan provisional council's foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, held talks with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on December 13, the same day that terrorists carried out a suicide attack on the Indian parliament.
Abdullah discussed a wide range of topics - including reconstruction needs, internal security, and the conduct of elections - with Vajpayee and other top Indian officials.
Abdullah emphasized that the provisional council, headed by Hamid Karzai, would act quickly to dismantle the rigid Islamic system established by the Taliban. He hinted that the council would press for new legislation that enshrined the right of worship for religious minorities. India has expressed a desire for guarantees for the rights of ethnic Sikhs in Afghanistan to practice their faith.
"It is the duty of the government to protect the rights of religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. They [minorities] will have freedom under the laws and constitution that will be passed [in the future]," Abdullah said.
Karzai's provisional council is scheduled to be formally installed in Kabul on December 22. The fact that Abdullah and the council's interim interior minister, Younus Qanooni, have already visited India signals that the Karzai government is counting on New Delhi's support in the coming months.
Just a day after the December 5 signing of the Bonn accords, which established the provisional council, Qanooni departed for a six-day visit in India.
Qanooni's chief aim was to examine India's judicial and law enforcement systems. During meetings with Indian officials from the foreign and home ministries, Qanooni requested India's assistance in establishing a national security force in Afghanistan. On December 12, India's Home Minister L.K. Advani announced that New Delhi would dispatch senior police officials to Afghanistan to serve as advisors on the establishment of law-enforcement institutions.
The possible prosecution of Taliban and al Qaeda militants will occur only after Afghanistan has developed a proper legal framework, Qanooni said at a December 12 press conference. "As far as [foreign] fighters for the Taliban goes, we captured them in Afghanistan and they will be dealt with under Afghan law," he said.
India maintained close ties with Afghanistan until 1996, when the Pakistan-backed Taliban seized control of most of Afghanistan. After anti-Taliban forces retook Kabul in November 2001, India reopened its embassy. As a goodwill gesture, India also revived a medical-care project at the Indira Gandhi Hospital, which now treats about 250 patients a day, according to officials.
The India visits of Abdullah and Qanooni appear to have fueled concerns in government circles in Pakistan. Islamabad views Afghanistan as a vital national security issue and is anxious to maintain dominant influence over Kabul.
Abdullah stressed that Kabul's relations with India should not be a source of concern for Pakistan. Meanwhile, Qanooni made it clear that the Karzai government would strongly resist Pakistani meddling. He went on to say Pakistan was attempting to interfere in Kabul's affairs, and he accused some Pakistani officials of supplying the Taliban with arms earlier in the anti-terrorism campaign. Officials in Islamabad vigorously denied Qanooni's allegations.