July 3, 2002


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The Rediff Interview/Satinder Lambah

'Afghanistan is moving away from Taliban extremism'

India's special envoy for Afghanistan, Satinder Lambah, recently ended hectic consultations in Kabul, which coincided with the meeting of the Loya Jirga, or Grand Council, confirming Hamid Karzai as the country's first democratically elected president.

In an exclusive interview to Shyam Bhatia following his meeting with Karzai, Lambah said India was proud of its record in promptly implementing its promises of aid to Kabul, which include humanitarian and technical assistance as well as the supply of civil aircraft and buses:

What were your impressions of the Loya Jirga?

I think the meeting of the Loya Jirga marks the beginning of the political process. That is very important. There have been many important developments in Afghanistan since firstly the fall of the Taliban, secondly the Bonn meeting, thirdly the establishment of the interim authority here in Kabul on December 22.

After that there were the meetings in Tokyo, Geneva and Berlin for reconstruction and security and now the Loya Jirga, which leads on to the formation of the transitional administration. So at the risk of repeating myself, this is the beginning of the political process.

Is there anything in particular that caught your attention at the Loya Jirga?

Yes, one thing that struck me was the role played by women. That's an important indication of the change that is taking place. One hundred and eighty women took part in the proceedings, one of them was elected the first deputy president of the Loya Jirga, another contested against the president and in a fairly good showing they got more than 10 per cent of the total votes. Many of them also made impressive speeches.

I should say that the resumption of the political process overall is good for India. India and Afghanistan have old and traditional relations and we are happy to see the revival of a political process that leads to an elected president and a broad-based government.

Were you able to detect a new and liberal trend in the proceedings of the Loya Jirga?

The participation of women and the argument put forward by one delegate that the word "Islamic" should be dropped from the description of the Afghan state are interesting developments, though we feel it is up to Afghanistan to decide what should be the title of the country. It is very clear that Afghanistan is moving away from the extremism that was visible in the Taliban years.

What ideas on bilateral relations have you exchanged with President Karzai?

I have been meeting him on different occasions. For example, early on during the Loya Jirga I had lunch with him along with other foreign observers. Since then I have called on him with our ambassador and he was very warm in his references to India. He wants our bilateral relations to progress further. He indicated different avenues along which we could work.

I briefed him on our contacts in the last few months and how nearly one third of the US $100 million that we had pledged in Tokyo has either been implemented or is under implementation.

Which avenues of bilateral dealings did Mr Karzai see as particularly promising?

He particularly referred to transport, education, health and training. Indian teachers and doctors would be welcome and the president would also like to send his people to India for training, including civil servants.

Road construction seems to be an important objective in Mr Karzai's mind. Will India send road construction teams to Afghanistan?

An Indian team will be here very soon to look into that aspect. At the moment it is a team coming from the Border Roads [Organisation], which will do a preliminary study. What happens next will depend on the outcome of their report. Like in other sectors, our emphasis will be on implementation.

Are you saying that India has an especially good record in implementing its promises of aid?

Most of the people I have met have been impressed by the fact that India has been implementing rather than merely talking. The 25 buses that you see in Kabul are from India. Another 25 will be here next month. The three Airbuses that will be added to the Ariana fleet in the next few weeks are from India. The doctors who are already here, the education team, the training of their diplomats, the humanitarian assistance that has been coming since November 21 to Kabul and different cities, these are just some examples.

Does this open up the prospects for bilateral trade?

As you know, an Indian trade delegation has already visited, one trade body, the CII [Confederation of Indian Industry], has opened an office here. There have been other delegations like the CII, FICCI [Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry], Punjab and Haryana Chamber and ASSOCHAM [Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry] -- they have all shown interest. I am confident that even the NRIs would like to examine the possibilities.

How has the Indian mission in Kabul been empowered to promote bilateral trade?

Like any Indian diplomatic mission, the embassy will be helping the promotion of trade between the two countries. The embassy in Kabul has a commercial office and there is an officer in charge of reconstruction and development work. Now with the start of relevant air services businessmen have started coming. Once the air services increase, the old trade ties can start again. In any case, as far as exports from Afghanistan to India by land are concerned, there are no real problems.

Do you think India should have joined the International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan?

We never join such operations. We only go in for participation in United Nations forces. In any case, when it comes to the ISAF, neighbouring countries were not invited to join. The nearest was Bangladesh, which did offer but was turned down.

How long have you now spent in your current job?

I took over on November 1. But I've been associated with the Bonn agreement and the interim administration. I was among the first foreign visitors to come here on November 21. That was before Bonn. That was followed on December 12 when [former external affairs minister] Jaswant Singh came here for the inauguration of the interim authority.

On November 21 our mission was set up and on December 22 it was made into a full-fledged embassy. We were among the first to open a diplomatic mission and send humanitarian assistance to Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif and Herat.

India was among the first countries to appoint an ambassador and among the first to implement aid pledges given in Tokyo.

Why does Afghanistan remain of vital interest to India?

There have been historical contacts between our countries. You know that in strategic terms our objectives have been that there should be no export of extremism or terrorism. We are glad that has become a thing of the past.

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