|Karzai has described India as a "friend" of Afghanistan but Pakistan as a "brother" [EPA]
The scene was in Kandahar, in January, 2003. I rather unexpectedly found myself addressing a group of Pashtun elders from Helmand, who were paying a visit to the former Taliban capital, which had been abandoned by its former rulers less than a month before.
These elders had seen Americans come and go over the previous decades, and they were curious as to what the outsiders' presence would bring them this time.
They sat quietly and impassively, as is their way, cannily judging our answers as a US Army Special Forces colonel and I answered their questions.
After some time, a particularly wizened gentleman, who had long sat silently at the back of the group, rose to speak.
With the departure of the Taliban, he said, representatives of the Iranians had come to his area. They were offering money and assistance; what should he and the other leaders in his area do?
I took the question to be something of a test; but before I could open my mouth to respond, the colonel stepped forward to denounce the Iranians, admonishing the elders not to have anything to do with them.
It may have been my imagination, but I thought I saw a knowing look pass over the elder's face as he sat down; he certainly did not seem convinced.
Not wanting to publicly contradict my counterpart, I said nothing; but later, I had an opportunity to speak with the elder and several others who had travelled with him.
"Look," I said, "if the Iranians offer you money, go ahead and take it. But remember, their assistance is likely to come at a price. And when they ask for your help, remember where your real interests lie."
Counter-weight to Pakistan
This scene came to mind as Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, made a brief visit to India last week.
I am long familiar with the Pakistani reaction - bordering at times on hysteria - to the Indian presence and growing influence in Afghanistan.
Preoccupied as I and others are with Pakistan's ambivalent attitude toward the Taliban, whose leaders find refuge east of the Durand Line, and with its deep-set distrust of the Kabul government, it has often seemed to me that the benefits of Afghanistan's relationship with New Delhi are greatly off-set by its disadvantages.
One can hardly blame the Afghans, however, if they see the situation quite differently.
Like my Pashtun elder in Helmand, why shouldn't they accept assistance when it is offered?
The Tajiks, in particular, have long-standing ties with India; and by any measure, the Indians have been quite munificent: Since the fall of the Taliban, they have provided some $1.3bn in economic and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, and currently offer some 1,000 scholarships per year.
Understandably wary of Pakistani meddling in their country and legitimately angry and suspicious of Islamabad's complicated relationship with their deadly enemies, it hardly seems reasonable, or prudent, that the Karzai government should turn its back on a potential counter-weight to Pakistani influence, and a generous one at that.
Negotiating with insurgents
As the visit to New Delhi made clear, however, the Afghan relationship with India is not without its own complications.
First, the Indians are expressing strong concern for the safety of their diplomatic establishments - twice the target of deadly attacks in which even knowledgeable and impartial observers claim a large degree of Pakistani complicity - and of the 2,000-strong contingent of Indian workers engaged in Afghanistan.
Indeed, for all that the Indians have committed to a robust programme of development projects, they are said to be holding back on more until their security concerns are met.
It is hard to see how they will be satisfied, given Karzai's current enthusiasm for a negotiated solution to the Afghan insurgency.
As he prepares to host some 1,400 of his countrymen in a so-called "Peace Jirga" next month, his Indian hosts have expressed severe reservations.
They do not wish to see a political accommodation with the Taliban which will leave a viciously intolerant band of religious obscurantists with an enhanced - and legitimised - influence in the country.
India, on the contrary, has an interest in seeing religious extremists isolated, whether in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, and their "sponsors" (read: Pakistan) internationally isolated as well.
For although Karzai has cleverly stressed the benefit of reaching out to the traditional Pashtun leadership as a means of luring fighters and political support away from the insurgency, the Indians know that the reconciliation process, if successful, is as likely to include at least some of the leadership of the Taliban and other elements of the current insurgency, and thus likely to enhance Pakistani influence as well.
|Afghan president will try to balance the interests of both India and Pakistan [GETTY]
Karzai will no doubt continue to try to balance his country's interests in maintaining effective relations with both his larger neighbours.
This brand of political slight-of-hand plays to his strengths, though it is still an open question as to whether he can successfully manipulate the two rivals, and not be mastered by their proxy competition.
In the end, however, as he prepares to face the day when his Western backers pack up and leave, it is clear where Afghan destiny, and the balance of its international interests, will lie.
Like my friend in Helmand, the Afghan president will be best advised to pay heed. For if he is to succeed in his political ambitions and bring an end to an insurgency which his foreign patrons seem incapable of quelling for him, Karzai will need the active cooperation of Pakistan.
During his last official visit to that country, Karzai employed a clever metaphor: "India," he said, "is a close friend of Afghanistan; but Pakistan is a brother of Afghanistan."
The line was doubtlessly an attempt to flatter his hosts and assuage their concerns, but it may have been more true than the Afghan president intended at the time: For while we can choose our friends, we cannot choose our relatives; and while our friends can turn away or be replaced, from family we can never escape.
Robert Grenier was the CIA's chief of station in Islamabad, Pakistan, from 1999 to 2002. He was also the director of CIA's counter-terrorism centre.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.