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The Rediff Interview/NSAB Convener Satinder Lambah
October 18, 2004
Afghanistan concluded its first-ever direct presidential election October 9. Though marred by a boycott by most candidates over alleged fraud, the election was judged to have been held fairly by the many international observers present in this landlocked country that is a buffer between South and Central Asia.
India, which is massively involved in the reconstruction efforts underway in the war-ravaged nation, provided the indelible ink for the election. Meanwhile, US forces continued the hunt for Osama bin Laden, considered the world's most dangerous terrorist, in the remote parts of the country.
National Security Advisory Board Convener Satinder Lambah was formerly the United Nations Special Envoy to Afghanistan. The former high commissioner to Pakistan, who is extremely knowledgeable about the Central Asian region, spoke briefly to Deputy Managing Editor Amberish K Diwanji about the current situation in Afghanistan.
The situation in Afghanistan seems very positive…
Who would have even imagined just five years ago a day in Afghanistan when the people are going to democratically elect their president? It is unbelievable. If you see the map of Afghanistan, it is surrounded by Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and China. Not one of these countries has had a proper democratic set up where the people are able to elect their top leader. Yet Afghanistan is today doing just that and is the only country in the region to this kind of an elected president.
What does this mean for India?
India stands to gain either way. Both the leading contestants, interim President Hamid Karzai (who is leading in the presidential election) and the leading contender, Yunus Qanooni, a former education minister, are friends of India. We are in contact with all the main players and India's position in Afghanistan is strong today.
India is playing a major role in Afghanistan's reconstruction. Would you elaborate on that?
Very much! First, let me say that many countries are helping Afghanistan in its reconstruction efforts. But clearly where India scores is that while the other countries give whatever they can to Afghanistan, India gives what Afghanistan wants, not just what we can.
To cite some examples, on December 30, 2001, I had gone to meet interim President Karzai and he said Afghanistan badly needs buses. I sent the message across and a few weeks later, we delivered buses manufactured in India to Afghanistan.
In another case, they requested us to lower the custom duties imposed on the dry fruits produced from Kandahar and exported to India and we agreed to do so, thus making it easier for the Afghan traders to sell their products in India.
Then Indian engineers built a road from Kabul to Chabar, which is on the Afghanistan border.
We have also been providing them training in various areas… We have provided training for their civil servants; we have trained some Afghans in the areas of information technology; we have imparted training in English so that the Afghans can, in turn, teach English in their country.
We are training them in the fields of education and health, two priority areas for Afghanistan.
So India is heavily involved in Afghanistan's reconstruction.
The Afghans are very appreciative of India's effort and work in their country.
What are India's concerns in Afghanistan?
Clearly our main concern is to ensure that the Taliban does not re-emerge.
The Taliban remain a dangerous force and we are keen in ensuring that they do not become a player in the affairs of Afghanistan.
Another concern is that New Delhi would like to ensure that there is no foreign intervention in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, that it is able to pursue its own interests and not be held hostage to the interests of other countries.
Despite the election, much remains to be done. We must remember that Afghanistan has gone through what can best be described as mediaeval theocracy, something that is extremely difficult and problematic for its citizens. Any improvement in the situation, any change will take time and we must be patient.
From the Afghanistan point of view, the progress made by that country after the overthrow of the Taliban in the end of 2001 is very good; it is when you compare it internationally with other countries that it appears still backward.
You said Afghanistan will take time to recover completely. How much time?
It is difficult to say, but at a conservative estimate, at least 10 years. Much depends on the country's economic development but let us not expect too much before a decade is out.
Is the Loya Jirga (assembly of elders) part of the electoral and political process?
Certainly! It was the emergency Loya Jirga held in June 2002 that first mooted and suggested the idea of an election to elect the country's president and to give Afghanistan a constitution.
The next Loya Jirga then approved the constitution that mandated the holding of an election.
How will the situation change after the election?
That is difficult to predict. One will have to wait and watch what happens but I think that for India, the election and its outcome are welcome steps.
Earlier interview with Ambassador Lambah: 'Afghanistan is moving away from Taliban extremism'
Photograph: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images; Image: Uday Kuckian
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