India has probably never been as secretive about a prime ministerial visit as it is being now over Manmohan Singh’s trip to Afghanistan. Such is the level of secrecy that senior officials insisted during a background briefing hours before Singh’s departure for Kabul on talking about a ‘likely’ visit, refusing to confirm when exactly he was leaving.
Singh, who was scheduled to reach Kabul this morning, is expected to return Friday. Initially, it seems, the Indian side was keen to wrap up the visit in one day, but the Afghan side is said to have insisted that he stay for a banquet on May 12.
Singh was originally supposed to pay a visit to Afghanistan at the beginning of this month. However, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Mark Grossman reportedly met top Indian officials here just a couple of days before the May 2 killing of Osama bin Laden in the heart of Pakistan and recommended he delay his trip. Grossman isn’t believed to have given any reason for his request, and indeed likely wasn’t himself aware of the real reason why this unusual request was being made in the first place.
The Indian side, for its part, is believed to have decided that the Americans were likely planning a military operation in Afghanistan. About 36 hours later, the real reason for the request was clear.
This will be Singh’s first visit to Afghanistan as premier in almost six years. Such high-level visits by Indian officials unsettle Pakistan, with Islamabad deeply suspicious of Indian intentions and the prospect of it consolidating influence in the strife-torn and landlocked country. The strategic importance of Afghanistan for India is underscored by the fact that India maintains four consulates in the country in addition to its embassy in Kabul. India has also so far spent $ 1.3 billion on developmental works in a number of areas in Afghanistan, and plans to do more to develop the country’s infrastructure.
Pakistan has for years been pressuring Washington to ensure that the Indian diplomatic presence in Afghanistan is curtailed, while at the same time trying to increase its own influence there (though without much success so far). Afghanistan is one of the main areas of friction between India and Pakistan, but India has indicated it plans to continue its involvement in the country, despite a number of terror attacks on Indian interests in Afghanistan that some claim have been backed by elements in Pakistan.