KABUL, Afghanistan – Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Afghan Parliament Friday that the two nations must not allow the flames of extremism and terrorism to be fanned and saluted Afghanistan's efforts to reconcile with Taliban insurgents.
Singh said Afghanistan had to make its decisions without "outside interference or coercion" and added that India was only interested in a stable, peaceful and independent Afghanistan at peace with its neighbors.
"Terrorism and extremism are alien ideas to our people. They bring only death and destruction in their wake. They provide no answers to the problems of poverty, illiteracy, hunger and disease," Singh told the assembled upper and lower houses of Parliament. "We cannot and must not allow the flames of extremism and terrorism to be fanned once again."
Singh was careful to avoid any reference to rival Pakistan, which for years has had a history of involvement in Afghanistan and is suspected of tolerating, or even supporting the Taliban.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set up a 70-member High Peace Council to try to make peace with the Taliban and bring a peaceful end to a nearly 10-year-old insurgency. The United States has also pushed for peace talks and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that her country had accelerated a diplomatic push for reconciliation and a nonmilitary solution to the war.
"Afghanistan has embarked upon a process of national reconciliation. We wish you well in this enterprise. It is up to you, as the peoples' representatives, to make decisions about your country's future without outside interference or coercion. This is your sovereign right. India will respect the choices you make and the decisions you take," Singh said.
On a two-day visit that ends Friday, Singh's trip appeared to signal that India sees an opportunity to pull Afghanistan closer to its side in its regional power struggle with Pakistan. Although the trip was planned well in advance of the death of Osama bin Laden last week, it came as Islamabad's already precarious relationship with the U.S. was further strained by the U.S. operation that killed bin Laden at a house near the Pakistani capital.
On his first visit to Afghanistan in six years, Singh walked a cautious line between showing support for Afghanistan and trying to assuage any fears in archrival Pakistan that he was trying to recruit Karzai against them — although the Afghan president has recently been vocal in his condemnation of Pakistan's tolerance of Taliban safe havens on its territory.
On Friday, Singh said bin Laden's death can be an opportunity to put aside decades-old regional rivalries and work for peace across Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"I sincerely hope that all countries of this region — Afghanistan, Pakistan, India — would recognize that this is a unique moment in the history of this region. Thereby we all should agree to work unitedly to end this scourge of terrorism," Singh told journalists on Friday.
A joint declaration issued by Singh and Karzai said that the two countries agreed to work to strengthen their bilateral agreements. And India announced in the declaration that will give an additional $500 million to the Afghan government for development programs. That brings India's total development aid to the country to $2 billion.
"Nothing would give us greater satisfaction than to see Indian resources being utilized for more roads, more electricity, more schools, more hospitals or more community projects — activities that directly benefit the common Afghan people," Singh told Parliament.
Afghanistan is likely to become more reliant on its rival regional allies, including powerhouse China, as its NATO partners begin withdrawing troops in the coming years. The U.S. plans to start decreasing forces in July, and all NATO partners are committed to handing over responsibility for security to Afghan forces by 2014. And bin Laden's death has some in NATO countries pushing for even quicker drawdowns.