In a clear sign that it is expanding its strategic footprint in Afghanistan despite an anxious Pakistan, India on Tuesday announced it will host a meeting of investors to drive investments and also initiated discussions to not only train, but also equip Afghan security forces.
This is the first time India has demonstrated such overt intent, having preferred to keep a lower profile earlier. The move to equip the Afghan security forces comes ahead of the withdrawal as early as next year of international troops that are now battling a resurgent Taliban.
The steps were decided during day-long talks between Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna and his visiting Afghan counterpart, Zalmai Rassoul, at the inaugural session of the India-Afghanistan Partnership Council meeting in New Delhi. The council is tasked with implementing the India-Afghan strategic partnership agreement—the blueprint for future cooperation between the two countries— signed in October last year.
Declaring India’s commitment to Afghanistan, which New Delhi views as a part of its extended neighbourhood, as neither “transitory” nor in “transition”, Krishna said he had informed Rassoul of “our intention to hold a meeting of regional investors on Afghanistan in New Delhi”.
A person close to the developments said the list of invitees would include Turkey and China, besides other countries, as the definition of “region” is being understood in broad terms. The New Delhi meeting is to be convened before the Tokyo conference on Afghan development in July, the person said. Attracting investments to the war-torn country is a part of plans drawn up by the international community to stabilize Afghanistan, where US-led international troops are struggling to contain a resurgent Taliban, whose top leadership had been ousted from Kabul in 2001.
“This is significant because India is now being seen as a relevant forum for looking at Afghanistan post-2014 (when foreign troops are scheduled to leave the country),” said C. Uday Bhaskar, former head of the National Maritime Foundation think tank.
“Security is the main challenge for Afghanistan, but development efforts have to be taken up so that the Afghan economy comes on track. At present, Afghanistan is dependent on donor aid,” he said. So India’s effort will be seen as a move to “infuse investor confidence and money” into the strategically located country, he added.
India and China, two of the world’s fastest growing major economies, are among the leading regional countries seeking access to Afghanistan’s mineral reserves. According to a US geological study, Afghanistan has nearly $1 trillion (Rs.52.5 trillion) of untapped mineral deposits— iron, copper, cobalt, gold and lithium. Afghan authorities say the country aims to generate revenue of $2 billion annually by 2017-18 from the mining and exploration business, including oil and gas, from about $100 million now.
Last year, an Indian consortium led by state-owned Steel Authority of India Ltd won the mining rights for three out of four iron ore blocks in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, 130km west of the capital Kabul. India has pledged $2 billion for reconstruction and development activities in Afghanistan since 2001. MCC, a Chinese firm, won a contract to develop the Aynak copper mine in 2008.
On his part, Rassoul said Afghanistan was in talks with all its partners in the international community for sustaining the national security forces, given that the US-led foreign troops will be handing over charge of the security of the entire country to Afghan forces in two years.
“With India, we are continuing to discuss the training of our officers, training the security forces, but also equipping in the longer term our security forces,” Rassoul said even as Krishna promised that India would not let Afghanistan become a target for extremist forces. “Afghanistan’s defence of its own territory is of extreme importance to us. Our security is entwined with the stability and security of Afghanistan,” he said.
However, the growing involvement of India will give rise to concern in Pakistan, which would view this as a strategic setback.
“Pakistan would have anxieties about this. India should talk to Pakistan about this. Both these steps are not inimical to the interests of Pakistan. A stable, prosperous Afghanistan is good for India, Pakistan and the region. It’s high time India and Pakistan have a dialogue on Afghanistan,” Bhaskar said.
Pakistan foreign office spokesman Moazzem Khan didn’t return a call seeking comment on India’s initiatives to expand its presence in Afghanistan.
According to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization website, Afghanistan was looking at having a 171,000-strong Afghan National Army and 134,000 Afghan National Police personnel by October 2011. At present, India trains about 100 Afghan security personnel in the country.
On peace talks with the Taliban, Rassoul said the Afghan government had “just started the process” of dialogue with those elements of the group that have given up violence, promise to uphold the country’s constitution, and respect the progress achieved in the past decade.
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