- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh became the first Indian leader to visit Afghanistan in almost three decades when he met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul this week. It was a country not represented in the meeting, though, that figured prominently in the discussions: Pakistan remains a central, unifying concern for both Afghanistan and India.

India has pledged $500 million in aid to Afghanistan, about $300 million of which has already been spent. Mr. Singh promised another $50 million during his trip, which will go towards “adopting” 100 Afghan villages by applying the same rural development programs that are used in India. Also, Indian funds are going towards renovating and reconstructing Afghanistan’s parliament building, a $25 million project; spending $80 million to rebuild a hydroelectric plant in Herat; and bringing power lines into Kabul, with a price tag of about $110 million.

Where Afghanistan sees India’s role as that of benefactor, Pakistan sees the intrusion of a meddler. Traditionally, Pakistan has regarded its poorer neighbor as a source of “strategic depth” for Pakistani forces, should they ever needed to pull back into Afghan territory in the face of an Indian military advance. Under the Pakistani-aligned Taliban rule, Afghanistan seemed to provide Pakistan with that depth. Given the new cooperation between Afghanistan and India, Pakistan has felt encircled.

It is in part for this reason that Pakistan has refused to allow Indian goods bound for Afghanistan to be moved through Pakistan. (Islamabad does allow, though, the passage of goods from the opposite direction, that is those coming from Afghanistan and other countries towards India through Pakistan.) Blocking the movement of Indian goods raises the price of Afghan-Indian trade, and prevents Afghanistan from becoming a land-bridge between India and Central Asia — an important natural asset for a country that has few of them.

During Mr. Singh’s visit, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called on Pakistan to allow the passage of Indian goods into Afghanistan. Pakistan has said in the past that it will not allow Indian goods to transit through Pakistan until progress is made with India on resolving issues surrounding the disputed territory of Kashmir, which both countries claim and control a portion of.

Pakistan should rethink its position. It would benefit financially by letting in Indian goods headed for Afghanistan and Central Asia by charging custom duties. While it is true India has not yet acted on some of Pakistan’s constructive proposals regarding Kashmir, Islamabad now has an opportunity to demonstrate its goodwill towards Afghanistan, the NATO mission in that country and India by allowing Indian goods to move through its territory.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said in his July visit to Kabul that “a strong, stable,vibrantandprosperous” Afghanistan is good for its neighbors. That comment reflects the kind of post-September 11 thinking that the subcontinent needs. Pakistan should begin applying it more broadly.

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