New Delhi: With a new chill in US-Pakistani ties following Osama bin Laden`s killing, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is all set to travel to Afghanistan, a visit sure to rankle Islamabad.
It will be the first trip to Kabul after August 2005 by a prime minister from India, which for decades has quietly competed with neighbour Pakistan for influence in strategically placed Afghanistan.
Details of Manmohan Singh`s journey are a closely guarded secret here. Officials say they are ignorant about the travel dates and that this would be known only 36 hours before Manmohan Singh takes off.
One reason for the secrecy -- normally the prime minister`s travel dates are known weeks in advance -- could be security concerns.
India`s close association with the Hamid Karzai regime and its intense dislike for the Pakistan-backed Taliban have made it a target of militants in Afghanistan believed to be linked to Islamabad.
But while not talking about the prime minister`s impending visit, Indian officials insist it has no desire to reduce Pakistan`s influence with policy makers in Kabul.
But a deeply suspicious Pakistan persuaded Ankara to exclude India from a 2010 meeting Turkey hosted on reconciliation efforts in Afghanistan.
India was incensed. "No one country can have veto over Afghanistan," an official here said.
India wants a role commensurate to the billions of dollars it has poured into rebuilding Afghanistan.
"We are for a regional approach to Afghanistan which will include all its neighbours including India, Iran, Russia, Central Asian countries, China and of course Pakistan," said the official. "We are certainly not looking to exclude Pakistan."
Pakistan, which had staunchly backed the Taliban regime (along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) until the US ousted it, is determined to have "strategic depth" in Afghanistan.
It is bitterly opposed to the four consulates India has in Afghanistan apart from its embassy in Kabul. These include two opened in Mazhar-e-Sharif and Herat after the Taliban`s ouster and two others reopened in Kandahar and Jalalabad which had remained shut since 1979.
Pakistan says these are used by India as "listening posts" and to fuel money and weapons to terrorists in Balochistan.
As an US ally in the war on terror, Pakistan had been trying to claim a large role in Afghanistan if and when the Americans withdraw. Knowing this, New Delhi is opposed to a total US pullout from Afghanistan.
But with the May 2 killing of Osama by US commandos deep in Pakistan taking Washington-Islamabad ties to an all-time low, Indian experts think New Delhi will be better heard both in Kabul and by Washington.
Both India and Afghanistan have repeatedly accused Pakistan of sponsoring terroristm and giving sanctuary to terrorists. The US had carefully played a middle road -- until Osama was found holed up in Abbottabad.
India spends USD 1.3 billion annually on Afghan projects ranging from roads, rails, education and health sector. It is also building the new parliament in Kabul.
Hundreds of Indians are involved in various projects, and at least five have been abducted and killed by the Taliban. The Indian embassy in Kabul has been bombed twice.
Manmohan Singh`s trip will also be in answer to the annual visits Karzai makes to India, one of the places where he was educated. Karzai was in New Delhi the last time in February this year.