NEW DELHI (AP) — Afghanistan on Tuesday signed a strategic partnership with India — its first such agreement with any country — recognizing a regional ally largely sidelined during a decade of U.S.-led international efforts to root out terrorists on Afghan soil.
While the pact had been expected, its timing sparked speculation of a shift in regional alignments after Afghan President Hamid Karzai chastised neighboring Pakistan for failing to act against Taliban-led insurgents based within its borders.
After meeting Tuesday, both Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke about the need for regional peace and prosperity, saying their countries envision a shared future free of extremism and violence.
"Afghanistan recognizes the danger that this region is facing through terrorism and the radicalism that's been used as an instrument of policy against civilians, against innocent citizens of our countries," Karzai told reporters.
But he also emphasized the need for broad regional cooperation, saying his country would "aspire to a life that is free of violence, and will seek cooperation and understanding from the members of this region, including our other neighbors."
Singh emphasized the countries' historical and cultural links and said the two leaders discussed terrorism in detail. "The people of Afghanistan have suffered enough. They deserve to live in peace and decide their future themselves, without outside interference, coercion and intimidation," Singh said.
The strategic partnership — "based on mutual understanding and long-term trust" — outlines areas of common concern including trade, economic expansion, education, security and politics.
The two sides also signed deals to boost cooperation in mining, oil and gas.
"Afghanistan will benefit from India's expertise," Karzai said, while thanking India for years of economic aid without conditions.
The timing of Karzai's visit, which followed days of sparring with Islamabad, was a coincidence, analysts said, noting the countries upgraded his trip to a bilateral meeting only after Karzai agreed to deliver a lecture Wednesday at a New Delhi event organized by a think tank.
Karzai had said over the weekend he was giving up on negotiating with the Taliban directly, and accused Pakistan of doing little to help rein in terrorists.
It's an allegation familiar with Indians, who blame Pakistan-based insurgents for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people and accuse Islamabad of doing little to bring the perpetrators to justice.
On Tuesday, an Afghan government commission investigating the assassination of the country's former President Burhanuddin Rabbani accused Pakistan of not cooperating, after alleging that Pakistani intelligence officials also had advance knowledge of the plot.
Pakistan says it is cooperating and denies involvement in the Sept. 20 killing of Rabbani, who was trying to broker peace with the Taliban.
But Karzai softened his tone on Monday by asking again for Pakistan's help in bringing terrorists to task. The allegations, coupled with the calls for continued help, illustrate Afghanistan's frustration in trying to end a decade of fighting that began with the U.S. invasion after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks: even as Pakistan has ties to groups behind the insurgency, it would be of central importance in any effort to bring about a negotiated peace.
Analysts said that negates the speculation about a strategic realignment, even though the friendship with India was bound to grow as the U.S. looks to scale back its military presence in the region over the next few years.
"Everybody keeps options open depending on how the solution evolves," said a former Indian diplomat in Pakistan, G. Parthasarthy, adding that it would serve no one's interest for Afghanistan and India to join together in snubbing their volatile neighbor.
"That sort of pressure would only unite people in Pakistan behind the military, and we don't exactly love the military," Parthasarthy said. "The Afghans are pragmatic people. There is a dependence on Pakistan they can't wish away," including the need for access to the sea, he said.
Afghanistan and Pakistan have long been uneasy allies against the Taliban insurgency, largely because of a long history of Pakistani governments backing insurgents as a way to keep a check on Afghan administrations.
India's policy on Afghanistan, meanwhile, has been to support international action led by the United States over the past decade while staying out of political and security issues so as not to antagonize Pakistan.
However, the U.S. has signaled a readiness over the past year for India to play a more active part.
"The U.S. is now willing to let India play a larger role in Afghanistan, and certainly Afghanistan wants it," said analyst Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian foreign secretary and ambassador to Washington. "After years of being sidelined, India is now regarded very much as part of the solution."