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Afghanistan: Karzai's India Visit Could Increase Regional Trade Links

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (file photo) Afghan President Hamid Karzai is on the second day of a three-day state visit to India aimed at improving trade links between the two countries. Karzai said in New Delhi on Wednesday that he has asked Pakistan to open a trade corridor for Indian exports to Afghanistan. At the same time, India and Pakistan announced an agreement to cut bureaucratic barriers that hamper trade. Indian officials and independent analysts say New Delhi sees Afghanistan not only as a partner for bilateral trade but also as a transit route for greater ties to markets in the former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

Prague, 24 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The Indian government has promised visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai that it will provide Kabul with training in the areas of civil aviation and broadcast media.

Karzai signed a memorandum with the Indian government today that formalizes the pledge. The document says India will train managers for civilian airports as well as air traffic controllers, navigational aides and aircraft maintenance crews for aircraft.

India also is promising technical assistance for the growth of television and radio networks in Afghanistan. Officials in New Delhi say the Indian government already has completed work on a satellite uplink which can retransmit television broadcasts from Kabul into 10 Afghan provincial capitals.

The projects are the latest in a series of growing ties between India and Afghanistan. Yesterday, Karzai proposed a trade corridor for Indian exports to Afghanistan through Pakistan. Meanwhile, India and Pakistan announced they have agreed to cut bureaucratic barriers that hamper trade.

When an Indian delegation led by External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh visited Kabul in mid-February, Karzai told the group that they should seriously consider joining a project that aims to build a pipeline for natural gas from Turkmenistan. The proposal calls for a pipeline to pass from eastern Turkmenistan through western Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and if New Delhi becomes involved -- on to India.

Although Karzai's aides have said the Afghan president would be lobbying for the pipeline project during his current visit to India, little has been said publicly about the project this week.

Industry analysts say a pipeline through Afghanistan will not be economically feasible unless it also links into the Indian market. Meanwhile, Islamabad is considering a separate plan to build a natural gas pipeline directly from Iran to a regional distribution center in southern Pakistan.

Niklas Swanstrom is director of the Program for Contemporary Silk Road Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. He spoke to RFE/RL about both proposed pipeline routes.

"The need for [natural] gas is so great in both Pakistan and India that one pipeline would not necessarily take out the other one," Swanstrom said. "[It] would probably be financially more sound to integrate them in some way. But that is probably not going to happen. I think both pipelines are going to run into a lot of political problems. We're going to see construction, maybe. We're going to see even, maybe, sales of [natural] gas. But they still have a lot to prove before I can actually believe that either of those two [proposed pipeline routes] is going to be a tremendous success."

Maqbool Ahmed Siraj, executive editor of the "Islamic Voice" newspaper in Bangalore, India, told RFE/RL that in additional to pipelines, India's main economic interest in Afghanistan is to develop a transit route allowing Indian traders to reach markets in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

"India thinks that Afghanistan has a strategic geographical position in Asia," Siraj said. "It is the conduit to trade ties with all the central Asian countries. That is why, perhaps, the new turn of events in Afghanistan is making India come closer to that country in order that it can explore the new markets in Central Asia. And also, bring in a pipeline through [Afghanistan], which of course, would also have to pass through Pakistan."

Siraj said Indian traders also could be interested in importing some Afghan products.

"Afghanistan might interest the people here for two particular items," Siraj said. "Traders here mostly would like to have carpets and dried fruits. These are the two items which we were traditionally importing from Afghanistan [before the economy there was destroyed by decades of war]."

During his meeting with the Indian External Affairs Minister yesterday, Karzai also expressed Kabul's interest in getting more Indian teachers and doctors to work in Afghanistan.

Siraj said he thinks that in addition to government-funded teachers, companies in India's high-technology sector could offer trainers in computer technology and experts who can help develop Afghanistan's fledgling telecommunications sector.