Indians may ask why New Delhi, happy to attach the phrase "strategic partnership" to its relations with all and sundry, has taken so long to affix this label to ties with a country of such consequence as Afghanistan. The answer lies in the near-hysterical response that even the faintest reference to India elicits in Pakistan, especially when associated with the latter's western border. Both in Washington and, to a lesser extent Kabul, Islamabad has insisted on a near-veto on what India does and can do in Afghanistan. For the most part, given how much anything in Afghanistan is dependent on Pakistan and how little India can tangibly do for Kabul, other countries have gone along with Islamabad's demands. And this includes even close friends of India like President Hamid Karzai.
The question is why Mr Karzai is now willing to declare India a strategic partner, publicly admit that Indians have been training Afghan soldiers and wave similar red rags before Pakis-tan. He has long sought to find a stable political equation with Pakistan, recognising that it is the only way to bring stability to his country. But he has been rebuffed by Islamabad's demands for the virtual subordination of Afghan sovereignty. His attempts to separate the Taliban by dangling the carrot of talks has been repeatedly sabotaged by Islamabad. And, above all else, his negotiating position has been vitiated by the lack of clarity about the exact nature of the US' commitment to his government. For example, it's still not clear whether US troops will stay behind 2014 or morph into a counterterrorism force based in Afghanistan. Or neither. The Abbottabad raid has precipitated a distinct downgrade in the relations between the US and Pakistan. The raid also means that the US is increasingly seeing a need to stay in Afghanistan. Mili-tary pressure is now coming to bear on the Haqqani Network, the Taliban ally who has been Pakistan's main weapon against Kabul.
India sensibly switched to a posture of supporting Mr Kar-zai in whatever negotiating stance he takes. That, as Mr Karzai has effectively said, is now about bringing Pakistan to the negotiating table. The truth remains he is still India's best chance to keep Afghanistan independent and sovereign. On paper, India may seem to have little to offer in terms of money and soldiers. But because India is such a bugbear for Pakistan, it will help Mr Karzai if he possesses even a symbolic 'India card' when he plays geopolitical poker with Rawalpindi. New Delhi should be prepared to let itself be 'used' in such a manner, discarded and played as Mr Kar-zai may like. This may not align itself with national pride, but helping him against Pakistan will be the best way to further India's strategic interests in the region and its security interests at home.