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Afghanistan has become one of the most important of India's partners

Indian PM Manmohan Singh is in Kabul.

Afghanistan has become one of the most important of India’s partners in the field of development cooperation. Over the last few years, many substantial bilateral projects have taken shape to give a new dimension to the well established association between the two countries. From as early as the 1950s India had begun to contribute to Afghan development plans: Indian experts in fields like agriculture, health, education, water, and mineral exploration, to name a few, were active in Afghanistan and made a contribution that was greatly appreciated in the partner country. These countries were two stalwarts of non-alignment, and Indian cooperation was especially welcome for being free of political overtones at a time when the protagonists of the Cold War were in competition with each other to establish their sway in Afghanistan.

Despite its own difficulties and its chronic shortage of resources, India made a special effort in Afghanistan. Landmarks established in those early days included a hundred-bed children’s hospital in Kabul that was a step or two ahead of anything in India itself, as well as plans for irrigation and hydro-electricity in different parts of Afghanistan. These practical schemes bore witness to a healthy and useful relationship of mutual cooperation between two close neighbours with an age-old shared history.

Internal turmoil and external intervention in Afghanistan brought this initial phase to an end. The Soviet invasion at the end of the 1970s and the succeeding civil war devastated Afghanistan and bred extremist ideology that left no room for the kind of cooperation India had been promoting. The entire region was affected and India found itself being targeted by unfriendly fanatical groups that had become established in Afghanistan. Rivalry between India and Pakistan gave an edge to the situation. Security considerations began to dominate the regional discourse and left a legacy that is as yet far from dissipated. But after the Taliban regime was removed by international forces led by the USA, yet another phase began in Afghanistan wherein questions of political and economic reconstruction became paramount. A vast international effort was mounted to support a revived, democratically structured Afghanistan, and India played its full part within this endeavour. Today, India is a major provider of cooperation and assistance having committed upward of USD 1.5 billion for the purpose, an inconceivable sum in former days but now within the country’s capacity.

When Dr Manmohan Singh went to Kabul, one of the questions was to identify what should come next to sustain and expand the programme, many of the earlier projects being either complete or reaching an end. The Prime Minister announced further cooperation assistance to the extent of USD 500 million, which ensures that economic and technical ties will continue to grow.

The economic and technical part of the India-Afghanistan relationship is strongly based, has well-established roots, and enjoys wide public support. But of course there is more to take into account while looking at the overall state of the relationship. Strategic factors have played a part from the beginning, Both India and Afghanistan border Pakistan whose relationship with each of these neighbours has had constant ups and downs ~ with India the ups have been few but with Afghanistan, after a rocky start, Pakistan has developed close ties. Lying astride the land route from India, Pakistan has progressively reduced and eventually halted access from one to the other. Afghanistan has lost what used to be a valuable market for its fresh fruits ~ even now Afghan melons and pomegranates excite extraordinary yearning in Delhi. India has lost more, being deprived of direct access overland to Central Asia where its ties are developing rapidly.

The strategic dimension, thus, has been seen and projected essentially in negatives, as seen in denial of overland access and transit. In recent years, as India’s capacity has increased and its interests in Central Asia have grown, it has felt the need to look for alternative routes to the traditional one through Pakistan, and has been able to join with Iran in developing a new route from the port of Chah Bahar on the Gulf to join up with the Kandahar-Herat highway of Afghanistan that leads on to Central Asia. Opening up the region in this way promises great benefit to all parties and is to be regarded as one of the successes of Indian enterprise in the region.

In his address to the Afghan Parliament ~ a great honour accorded to him ~ Dr Manmohan Singh spoke of the strategic dimension of the Indo-Afghan relationship. As he described it, and as was agreed between him and President Karzai, this was to be a long term relationship aimed at reinvigorating the partnership in all sectors, political, economic, and social. The term ‘strategic’ in this context is without any of the negative overtones that it often carries, and does not signify any intention to develop bilateral ties at the cost of any other party.

Carrying that theme further, in a significant statement made in Kabul the Prime Minister referred to the common interest of India, Afghanistan and Pakistan in combating terrorism and the need for them to work together in this endeavour. This was only a few days after the hunting down of Osama bin Laden and the exposure of his long residence in Abbottabad. Many snide remarks had been made on this matter in both New Delhi and Kabul. Dr. Manmohan Singh did not try to add to Pakistan’s discomfiture. Instead he called for cooperation with that country and with Afghanistan in meeting the problem of terrorism that afflicts all these countries. Coming when it did, and where it did, the Indian Prime Minister’s call is a statesmanlike attempt to move on from the problems and suspicions that have divided the region.

What awaits Afghanistan in coming times is by no means clear. The international forces so crucial for peace and security will begin to be reduced in the course of the current year. Demands for their accelerated withdrawal are growing. While they can pack up and go, the neighbours have no such option: they have to continue the quest for peace and stability, and for settlement of differences through consultation and cooperative effort.

The Indian PM’s Kabul visit shows that he envisages a regional effort in this direction. Of late, there have been many suggestions by experts and other knowledgeable persons for a regional initiative to try to bring stability to what is still the troubled land of Afghanistan. The PM referred to Saarc which is a regional organization that could in time have a part to play. Other possibilities can be envisaged. Some form of collective regional effort seems necessary, for which Dr Manmohan Singh’s Kabul visit can be regarded as an encouragement.

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