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Afghanistan: India Looks To Kabul For Better Ties With All Of Central Asia

Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran says officials in New Delhi are looking forward to next week’s visit by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that aims to improve diplomatic and economic ties. Saran said after meeting Karzai in Kabul yesterday that New Delhi sees Afghanistan not only as a partner for bilateral trade, but also as an important economic link with all of Central Asia.

Prague, 16 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan President Karzai told Indian Foreign Secretary Saran in Kabul yesterday that New Delhi should seriously consider joining a proposed project to build a pipeline for natural gas from Turkmenistan.

The proposal calls for a pipeline passing from eastern Turkmenistan through western Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Energy industry analysts say the project will not be economically feasible unless it also links into the Indian market. Saran reportedly told Karzai that New Delhi is considering the project.

Speaking to reporters aboard his flight out of Kabul yesterday, Saran said New Delhi is interested in the regional impact of improved bilateral ties with Afghanistan. "You should look at Afghanistan as an economic opportunity -- for example, access to Central Asia," Saran said. "There is tremendous potential that remains to be tapped between India and Afghanistan."

Speaking about his talks with Karzai, Saran said Karzai also expressed the desire to bolster relations. "He was looking forward to his visit to India [on 23 February] where he would try and further expand our cooperation in many new areas," he said.

Saran said five Afghan cabinet ministers joined his talks with Karzai. Those officials reportedly included Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah as well as the defense, trade, commerce, public health, and economy ministers.

India was a key supporter of the Afghan forces that overthrew the Taliban regime with U.S. backing. It also has been one of the main regional backers of Karzai's government, pledging aid of about $400 million. But yesterday marked the first time an Indian foreign secretary met directly with an Afghan defense minister in the post-Taliban era.

Saran used the occasion to donate 50 trucks to the new Afghan National Army. He also pledged to accelerate a project to train Afghan diplomats and government officials. Analysts say those moves suggest possible further military and diplomatic cooperation between India and Afghanistan.

Niklas Swanstrom, the director of the Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden, told RFE/RL there are several reasons why it makes sense for India to seek greater ties with Afghanistan.

"Economic ones -- trade. But also oil, [natural] gas, etc., which is still not reality but could happen. But also, you have a political aspect, which is [combating cross-border] terrorism and controlling [the regional influence of] Pakistan. Pakistan traditionally has a very strong influence over Afghanistan, both positive and negative. If India comes in, it will decrease [Islamabad's] leverage over Afghanistan. [So,] by engaging Central Asia and Afghanistan they will get leverage over political developments in the region -- which means decreasing Pakistan's influence over those states," Swanstrom said.

Saran, in an apparent attempt to sooth concerns in Pakistan about growing Indian-Afghan ties, traveled directly to Islamabad after his talks with Karzai.
But several problems need to be dealt with.... Afghanistan's insecurity, Turkmenistan's isolationism, and also the rivalry between Pakistan and India." - Swanstrom

Swanstrom notes that since becoming the Indian foreign secretary last autumn, Saran also has had other meetings on trade issues with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf.

"When you talk about trade, [India is] actually interested in including Pakistan in the trade. It's been a very positive development not only with Central Asia and Afghanistan, but also with Pakistan. By [economically] integrating Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, [New Delhi] would potentially tie those economies to India -- which would decrease the incentive of those countries to combat India's interests. And that's tying economy to politics in a very open and clear way," Swanstrom said.

Indeed, in a speech made at the Indian International Center in New Delhi on 14 February, Saran said New Delhi is prepared to invest money in the construction and upgrading of cross-border infrastructure with all of its neighbors. He said the government in New Delhi is prepared "to make our neighbors full stakeholders in India's economic destiny" and create a globally competitive South Asian Economic Community.

But, in a clear reference to Pakistan, Saran said New Delhi also expects its neighbors to stop allowing the use of their territories for cross-border terrorism and other hostile activities against India. Islamabad rejects charges by India that it sponsors cross-border terrorist attacks into Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Speaking about the proposed pipeline project through Afghanistan, Swanstrom said he thinks the plan does not have much chance of being realized. "I still think it's a long shot," he said. "But nevertheless, the fact that they are talking about it and trying to deal with it is a positive development. But several problems need to be dealt with. First of all, there's Afghanistan's insecurity, Turkmenistan's isolationism, and also the rivalry between Pakistan and India. And then there are also Pakistan's own energy problems. Pakistan needs literally everything that comes by them."

Still, Swanstrom said that a separate plan to build a natural-gas pipeline directly from Iran to a regional hub in southern Pakistan would not hurt the proposed Afghan route. In fact, he said the Iranian project could make the Afghan route more economically feasible if the two separate pipelines link into the same regional distribution network.