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Why Afghanistan is important to India

Ramananda Sengupta | August 30, 2005 00:08 IST
Last Updated: August 30, 2005 01:05 IST

Ever since Operation Enduring Freedom evicted the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban regime from Kabul in December 2001, various powers started -- as they always have been -- jockeying for political and economic leverage in Afghanistan.

India -- one of the main supporters of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which had managed to hold on to a tiny sliver of the country in the north during the five years of Taliban rule -- and Pakistan are among them.

Afghanistan has a long and tumultuous history full of warring tribes and ethnic factions, including a decade of brutal Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989.

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Its main advantage, its geography -- has perhaps also been its main drawback. Anyone who controlled Afghanistan controlled the land routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and resource rich Central Asia. Almost every major power therefore wanted a slice of the pie.

Today, flanked by Iran on the west, Pakistan on the east and the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan in the north (and a very small stretch of border with China in the northeast), the country's geo-strategic importance has multiplied manifold.

What are India's interests in Afghanistan today?

Economically, it is a gateway to the oil and mineral rich Central Asian republics. Also, the massive reconstruction plans for the country offer a lot of opportunities for Indian companies.

Historically, apart from the five-years of Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, India has enjoyed good to excellent cultural and economic relations with Afghanistan. Indian movies are reportedly a staple part of the Afghan culture, while Afghan shawls and dry fruits, among other things, come into India both legally and illegally.

Strategically, an actively pro-Delhi regime in Kabul (at the moment, fierce warlords rule most other parts of the country) would rattle Islamabad, which has traditionally seen Afghanistan as its own backyard.

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Why is Pakistan averse to giving India transit rights through to Afghanistan?

Officially, the reason is Kashmir.

The issue of transit rights has even affected the talks for the gas pipeline from Iran, with India's request for a highway parallel to the proposed gas pipeline from Iran being repeatedly rejected by Islamabad.

Pakistan has been linking almost all economic issues, including granting of MFN status to India, to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute.

Unofficially, it has to do with Pakistani fears that it would be swamped with Indian imports, and its desire to retain hegemony over trade with Afghanistan.A huge chunk of Afghanistan's trade is channeled through Pakistani ports like Gwadar and Karachi.  

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What are the other differences with Pakistan?

Pakistan is wary of the number of Indian consulates in Afghanistan -- in Jalalabad, Kandahar, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif. It believes that these missions are being used to foment unrest across the border in Pakistan's Balochistan and other frontier provinces. Some officials have even accused the Indian missions of printing and circulating fake Pakistani currency and recruiting Afghans to carry out subservice acts in Pakistan.

India, however, asserts that "It's for the Afghans to decide which countries get to set up consulates in their countries."

"We have strong bilateral relations with Afghanistan, and we want to help them rebuild their country. India also sees Afghanistan as a route to Central Asia. So it has nothing to do with Pakistan," a government spokesman said.

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But a Pakistani official was quoted as saying that "Pakistan wants a stable Afghanistan, because they are next to us, and any instability up there will leak into Pakistan." As "for the Indians, we have told Afghanistan that if they open those consulates in southern Afghanistan, the only purpose is cross border terrorism into Pakistan."

What is the significance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Kabul?

Since the fall of the Taliban, India has been one of the primary donors towards Afghanistan's reconstruction. Apart from presenting aircraft to kickstart its Ariana airlines, India has been active in building roads, schools, hospitals, power and communication networks, besides training its military, police, bureaucrats, diplomats and even businessmen.

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The prime minister's visit is aimed at consolidating these efforts, to send out a message of solidarity and trust with the war-scarred nation, still deeply divided along ethnic lines.

According to Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran, "On the political side, really our effort has been to contribute to the strengthening of this national consensus, interethnic harmony in Afghanistan because we believe that for the return of political stability it is important for the different ethnic communities to work together. 

"We have supported President Karzai in this direction the past and we will continue to do so," he said.

More news from Afghanistan

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