Delhi's Afghan ties risk raising Pakistani wrath

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 August, 2008, 12:00am

A milestone in Indian-Afghan relations will be marked this month when both sides cut the ribbon on a highway that gives landlocked Afghanistan access to ports in Iran.

India is helping Afghanistan build projects worth US$650 million - power plants, transmission lines, schools, hospitals and roads. But the 218km Zaranj-Delaram highway, in the southwest of the country, is possibly the most important project that India has helped build.

It ends Kabul's dependence on Pakistan. From this month, when India will hand over the highway to the Afghan government, goods can be transported through Iran. Afghanistan currently has to move goods through Pakistans to Karachi to reach a port. And the road signals a setback in Afghan-Pakistan relations.

'Pakistan won't like it because it is paranoid about India. But all the road does is end Afghanistan's exclusive dependence on one country for access to the sea,' said a former Indian ambassador to Pakistan, G. Parthasarathy.

Warmer Indo-Afghan relations were evident this week during Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to New Delhi following a regional summit in Colombo. Both Mr Karzai and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke about the need to fight terrorism - a reference to the bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul which killed more than 50 people.

Some analysts believe the attack was designed to deter India from increasing its presence in Afghanistan. But Dr Singh said the attack would not stop India helping reconstruction, offering additional aid worth US$450 million.

Both leaders also blamed Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI, for the attack. It is widely believed that Mr Karzai's speech at the summit, when he accused Pakistan of not doing enough to rein in terrorists, showed an eagerness to widen co-operation with India.

Afghanistan is a prize that Pakistan and India have long squabbled over, and since the fall of the Taleban in 2001, analysts say that India has been working to regain a strategic foothold in the country.

It opened two consulates in Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif and reopened two in Kandahar and Jalalabad that had been closed. But it is the infrastructure projects that have given India a high profile in Afghanistan - and analysts say this irks Pakistan.

'Pakistan has been outmanoeuvred by India. It is worried that India could end up permanently having the upper hand, but its options are limited,' said Bharat Karnad of the Indian Centre for Policy Research.

But not everyone agrees that the warmer relations have scuppered Pakistan's ambitions.

'No matter how wonderful these relations are, Pakistan can always play the spoiler because of its control of the Taleban,' says Phunchok Stobdan of the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis.

He says the winner will be determined by 'whether India's capacity to sustain development in Afghanistan is greater than Pakistan's ability to sustain support for the Taleban, which enjoys Saudi money and wide ideological support in terms of Islamic solidarity'. What Pakistan cannot match is India's 'soft power', namely the popularity of Bollywood films and music in Afghanistan.

Deeper Indo-Afghan links may not raise only Pakistan's hackles.

'The US would oppose it for fear that Pakistan, still regarded by Washington as a key ally in the war against terrorism, would fall into paroxysms of fury,' said Mr Parthasarathy.