Pakistan warned Afghanistan against anymore regional "point scoring" on Thursday after Kabul signed a pact with Islamabad's archenemy New Delhi that some fear could prompt Pakistan to strengthen its alleged support for Afghan insurgents.
Pakistan is under increasing American pressure to cut ties with militants that it is widely believed to be holding onto for use as potential partners against Indian influence in Afghanistan once Washington withdraws its combat troops in 2014.
The strategic partnership signed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai on a visit to India on Tuesday added to concerns in Islamabad that New Delhi was increasing its influence on Pakistan's western flank. The deal came at a sensitive time for Islamabad, which is facing renewed accusations by U.S. and Afghan officials of collusion with militants in attacks on Afghan soil.
In Pakistan's first reaction to the deal, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tehmina Janjua said "this is no time for point scoring, playing politics or grandstanding."
"At this defining stage when challenges have multiplied, as have the opportunities, it is our expectation that everyone, specially those in position of authority in Afghanistan, will demonstrate requisite maturity and responsibility," she told reporters.
President Karzai tried to assuage concern over the agreement Wednesday, saying it was not intended as an aggressive move against Pakistan. He said the pact simply made official years of close ties between India and Afghanistan's post-Taliban government. New Delhi has given significant amounts of civilian aid to Kabul over the last 10 years to build roads, schools and hospitals.
Karzai's words likely carried little weight in Pakistan, which is sandwiched between Afghanistan to its west and India to its east. Pakistan's army has long viewed policy in Afghanistan through one lens: countering the perceived danger of Indian influence in the country.
"The agreement will heighten Pakistan's insecurities," said Talat Masood, an analyst and former Pakistani general. "Pakistan has always felt that it is being encircled by India from both the eastern and western borders."
An editorial in Pakistan's leading English-language newspaper, Dawn, expressed concern that the pact _ the first of its kind between Kabul and any country _ could "lead to ill-advised efforts to ramp up Pakistani involvement in Afghanistan."
Pakistan and India have fought three wars and been fierce enemies since the two were carved out of British India in 1947.
Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have also been rocky, with many Pakistani officials viewing Karzai as too close to India, where he attended university.
To check India's power in Afghanistan, Pakistan has historically supported Islamist militants like the Taliban who it believes are also opposed to India and its majority Hindu population. Islamabad has also allegedly backed militants who have carried out attacks in Kashmir, an area claimed by both Pakistan and India.
Pakistan maintains it severed ties with the Taliban and other militants following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. But Washington and Kabul say otherwise.
The U.S. has recently accused Pakistan's main spy agency, the ISI, of supporting the Haqqani militant network, which is allied with the Taliban and is suspected of carrying out a recent attack against the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The group is believed to be based in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area near the Afghan border.
Afghan's interior minister has accused the ISI of being involved in last month's suicide bombing in Kabul that killed former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was leading the government's U.S-backed effort to talk peace with the Taliban.
Masood, the former general, also expressed concern that Afghanistan's pact with New Delhi could prompt Pakistan to step up support for militant proxies. Washington's growing ties with growing global power India have also made Islamabad suspicious, he said.
"The agreement will further reinforce their feeling that the Americans and the Indians are pursuing a policy toward Afghanistan that is hostile to Pakistan's interests," said Masood.
The Afghan-Indian strategic partnership outlines areas of common concern including trade, economic expansion, education, security and politics. One of its most sensitive provisions stipulates that India will help train and equip Afghanistan's security forces.
India is already helping train more than 100 members of the Afghan national security forces, said an official with the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the coalition was not a signatory to the partnership agreement.
Greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan's security forces would likely spark further concern in Islamabad.
Despite Afghanistan's efforts to strengthen ties with India, analysts and former officials said there were limits to the country's ability to sideline Pakistan, even if it wanted to. One of the most important is geography.
"The imperative of geography is that landlocked Afghanistan will continue to have to look to Pakistan for trade access and related issues for the future," said Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani diplomat.
The Afghan government will also need Pakistan to use its militant links to push forward peace talks with the Taliban, even if Islamabad hasn't done much to help so far, said Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a Pakistani political and defense analyst.
"Moving closer to India is the only strategy available to counter Pakistani pressure," said Rizvi. "But in the long run, Afghanistan can't alienate Pakistan altogether."
Lodhi, the former diplomat, said she hopes Pakistan keeps this bigger picture in mind before making hasty decisions on the security front.
"It should avoid mimicking President Karzai, who thinks pique can serve as policy," she said.
Associated Press writers Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Katy Daigle in New Delhi and Deb Riechmann in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.