Thursday 28 June 2012. India is flexing its soft power muscles this week by hosting an international investment conference on Afghanistan, barely a week before another global gathering in Tokyo to pledge aid. The BBC’s South Asia correspondent Andrew North examines the deepening ties between India and Afghanistan.
On a recent flight from Kabul to Delhi none of the Afghan passengers were surprised when take-off was delayed.
Business class was still empty. Some VIPs must be running late, they concluded.
They were right, except the late arrivals turned out to be very important policemen – among them a colonel – severely injured in another insurgent assault on Kabul.
It is quicker to fly to next-door Pakistan. But when officials like this need help, Afghanistan would rather trust its old friend India to look after them.
Battle for influence
Encouraged by the US and its Nato allies as they prepare to retreat in 2014, India and Afghanistan are deepening their ties, to the frustration of their neighbour sandwiched in-between.
SM Krishna Indian foreign minister The two states signed a strategic partnership last year, which among other things promises more Indian help in building up Afghan security forces.
More than 100 Afghan officers are already attending Indian military colleges, with the number set to rise.
In effect, the next round of the age-old battle for influence in Afghanistan has begun.
India is watching closely the actions there of its huge northern rival China, which has secured rights to vast copper deposits.
The Indian government is keen to emphasise the soft power side of its strategy, such as Thursday’s gathering at a plush Delhi hotel aimed at attracting more foreign investment into Afghanistan.
“Let the grey suits of businessmen take the place of the olive green fatigues of soldiers and generals in Afghanistan,” Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna told a conference hall filled with would-be investors.
In financial terms, India is already one of the biggest players in Afghanistan.
It has pledged or spent some $2bn (£1.3bn) worth of aid over the last decade to build roads, power stations and even the Afghan parliament.
‘New silk road’
India has been rewarded with rights to mine Afghanistan prime iron ore reserves.
It is state companies who are leading the way so far though.
Private investors at the conference seemed to be doing more window-shopping rather than being ready to invest – with many nervous about events after the Nato pull-out.
But for Indian companies there is an open door, from the Afghan street to the presidential palace.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai did his university studies in India and speaks Hindi.
Walk through central Kabul and you soon lose count of the number of places selling Indian music and movies.
While you never hear a good word about Pakistan, you rarely hear a bad one about India.
Afghan officials at the Delhi meeting were talking of a “new silk road” between the two countries, even though Commerce Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi admits Afghanistan is still “one of the riskiest places in the world to do business”.
But go to a private Delhi hospital and you see a new kind of silk road already emerging, with a boom in Afghan medical tourism.
It is not just security personnel coming for specialist care, but thousands of other Afghans for routine operations.
Some hospitals now have separate reception desks with staff speaking the two main Afghan languages to handle the numbers.
As most Afghan patients pay with wads of crisp dollars, the hospitals want them to keep coming.
Locals in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar district, where many Afghan medical tourists stay, joke it should be renamed “Little Kabul”.
The connections between the two nations are set to get physical, if a recently signed deal to pipe gas 1,700km (1,056 miles) from Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and Pakistan to India goes ahead.
India’s state gas company is one of the leaders of a consortium trying to persuade global investors to stump up $7.6bn (£5bn) for the so-called TAPI pipeline later this year. It is a rebirth for an old idea which US companies tried to get the Taliban to sign up to before 9/11 – and with the route by-passing Iran, the Americans are encouraging it again.
With the obvious security challenge of trying to lay and protect a pipeline not just across Afghanistan – but also the troubled Pakistani province of Balochistan – the project has been derided by some in India as, well, a pipe dream which leaves Delhi beholden to its old enemy Pakistan.
There are fears it will only increase the risks India faces in Afghanistan.
It has already lost diplomats in bomb attacks on its in Kabul embassy – attacks India says were carried out by Pakistani-backed groups.
Getting in deeper only inflames India-Pakistan tensions, some argue.
Why does not India just get out and leave “Af to Pak” asked a column by Shekhar Gupta, the influential editor of the Indian Express.
Foreign ministry spokesman Syed Akrabuddin says India’s presence is about its own strategic self-interest.
“Afghanistan is in our neighbourhood and there is a history of Afghan soil being used for terror attacks on India. We can’t have that again,” he said.
The truth is that few Indians pay much attention to their government’s policy in Afghanistan.
If they consider the country at all, they think of it as a place of suicide attacks.
But there is a kinder image too, from the Kabuliwalla story taught in many Indian schools – about a poor Afghan who comes to Calcutta to work to pay off his debts and befriends a young girl.
The many Afghans coming to India for medical treatment or business are showing another side to their country too, one Indians realise they can benefit from.
Delhi’s “Little Kabul” looks set to keep growing.