The Indo-Afghan strategic pact may not be as big as the media is making it out to be but neither is it insignificant. It does represent some new thinking and fair risk-taking in terms of power projection as India solidifies its status as an emerging great state.

Afghanistan is a graveyard of great powers and empires and this is only too well-understood by Indian policy-makers. Soviet Russia and the US rashly intervened in Afghanistan. One paid with the loss of the Soviet Union. America, on the other hand, faced the 9/11 attacks from which it has irrecoverably declined.

Pakistan has also been fatally wounded by meddling in Afghanistan. Its existential threat from terrorism can be rooted to its making common cause first with the mujahideen and then with the Taliban.

A dangerous quest for strategic depth against India drew Pakistan deeper and deeper into the Afghan morass. But its principal threat today comes not from India but the terrorists and chiefly and ironically from something called the Pakistani Taliban.

This history is well-known which is why India restricted its earlier counter-Taliban strategy to providing logistic support to the non-Taliban Northern Alliance in league with Russia, the Central Asian republics and Iran. In a post-US phase, a second Northern Alliance appeared inevitable to this writer backed by the same parties.

But the latest strategic pact suggests that India has gone a step further. It has brought Hamid Karzai and therefore a goodly section of Pashtuns into its perceived construct of a post-US Afghan power structure.

Karzai has his enemies, some of them oddly Western governments including the US who expect him to be a perfect democrat. India has lesser expectations from him but greater hopes.

Karzai is the foremost democratic leader amongst Afghans and particularly Pashtuns and therefore has to be cultivated. To consign Pashtuns to the Taliban is to consign them to hell and to crush their democratic aspirations. So Karzai becomes important.

But while India is willing to take risks by dealing with a section of Pashtuns, it will baulk from militarily intervening in Afghanistan. Dealing with Pashtuns means engaging Karzai and the others he considers moderate who may be reconciled to a democratic Afghanistan, including the lower rungs of the Taliban.

So long India does not militarily intervene in Afghanistan its credentials will remain clean. Afghans won't look on Indians as occupiers and that creates an atmosphere of trust and understanding.

But this represents an advance from dealing largely and perhaps exclusively with non-Pashtun Afghans of the Northern Alliance which permitted Pakistan to play havoc with the other side. To expect today's pact to dramatically alter the situation in Afghanistan is unrealistic. But India certainly will be counted as a player without the concomitant military commitment, and that is noteworthy.

But the way ahead is hard for India in Afghanistan. The US exit will surge Taliban power. Quite aside from its support to the anti-Karzai, anti-democratic forces, Pakistan's own ruptured ties with the US is forcing greater dependence on the Saudis, who could be willing to pay for Pakistani nukes to deter Iran. This intelligence was available with this writer no sooner than US military aid to Pakistan was suspended post the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

The Iranians are key to any Indian plans to stabilize Afghanistan while keeping the Pakistanis neutralized. An Iran-Pakistan face-off over Pak nuclear proliferation to Saudi Arabia may produce smirks in India but will unsettle the region.

Pakistan may not after all sell the nukes to the Saudis in return for Iranian non-cooperation with India on Afghanistan. Or, in the worst case, Pakistani nukes may be sold to both parties, the Saudis and the Iranians, clandestinely.

The logic is that if the Saudis get the nukes from Pakistan, what prevents the Iranians? Pakistan and Iran are not diehard Shia-Sunni rivals as Iran and Saudi Arabia are.

The point is there is no simple reading of the Afghan situation and today's pact represents a small progress on the Indian side. Considering that India is risk-averse to power projection after the disastrous IPKF intervention in Sri Lanka, it represents a step forward. The other recent examples are the Indian Navy's anti-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean and India's forays in the South China Sea.

Ultimately, however, it is not about Afghanistan but Pakistan. Pakistan prevents a resolution of the Afghan crisis although it is paying a very high price for its involvement in Afghanistan.

The Pakistan, US and Soviet examples tell not to intervene in Afghanistan and to manage the situation as best as possible from the outside. Which is what the Indo-Afghan pact represents. The Pashtuns have turned against the Pakistanis. The Taliban leaders loathe ISI control but can do little about it. The Afghans know that the Pakistanis are out to destroy Afghanistan.

If India can manage these forces to bring plural democracy to Afghanistan without intervention and with the exclusion of Pakistan, that would be real victory. Perhaps the pact sets the foundation for this.