- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

NEW DELHI — India has poured more than a half-billion dollars of foreign aid into Afghanistan in the past three years in an attempt to create a friendly and stable neighbor in a volatile part of the world.

The effort, which continues despite a Pakistani blockade of Indian goods bound for Afghanistan, touches all aspects of life — biscuits for 1 million children, planes for the national airline, artificial limbs for thousands of land-mine victims, jeeps for the military, scholarships, energy, dams, telephone lines and even satellite downlinks.

India also has helped train those deprived of an education during the Taliban rule — from diplomats to doctors to elevator operators. Indian engineers are even helping to design and build the new Afghan parliament building.

“We would like to see Afghanistan develop in our own image — pluralistic, democratic, free from interference from its neighbors and prosperous,” a senior official in New Delhi said.

But Indian officials say Pakistan is putting up obstacles to the effort.

The historic rivalry between India and Pakistan has complicated proposed energy pipelines from Afghanistan, which would have to run through Pakistan on the way to India.

Additionally, Pakistan usually refuses to let Indian aid pass through its borders to reach Afghanistan.

“There was much trade between India and Afghanistan before, but Pakistan is creating problems. They allow Afghan goods to go to India, but not Indian goods to come to Afghanistan,” said Younus Momtaz, first secretary at the Embassy of Afghanistan in New Delhi.

Officially, Pakistan has said the blockade will not stop until steps are taken to resolve the long-standing dispute over Kashmir, a territory claimed by both India and Pakistan since they achieved independence in 1947.

However, some analysts think Pakistan is more worried about losing its dominant position in Afghan trade.

Since the fall of the Taliban, Pakistan’s trade with Afghanistan has risen exponentially, from $192 million in 2001 to ‘02 to more than $1 billion in 2004 to ‘05.

Indian trade with Afghanistan, meanwhile, is estimated by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industryat $202 million for 2004 to ‘05. Total Indian aid to Afghanistan since 2003 is approaching $600 million.

In ancient times, Afghanistan traded easily with the Indian subcontinent. Merchants traveled on the Grand Trunk Road from the fertile plains of northern India, through Pakistan and onward to Kabul, Afghanistan.

Now, Indian aid and trading goods are unloaded at ports in Iran and trucked to Kabul over winding mountain roads.

Indian aid often takes a month to reach its destination — and sometimes cannot get through at all. The same goods could be transported through Pakistan in about a week.

India’s aid effort includes an $84 million joint project with Iran to build a 136-mile road from Iran’s Chabahar and Bandar Abbas ports to Afghanistan. That will eliminate a detour of 900 miles and cut travel time substantially.

It is hoped that the road will also bring development to a relatively lawless region of southwestern Afghanistan, which has turned into a center of opium farming in recent years.

Travel in the region remains highly dangerous; one Indian worker on the project was kidnapped and killed in November.

India and Pakistan backed contending factions during Taliban rule in Afghanistan, with the rebel Northern Alliance being allowed to maintain an embassy in New Delhi.

Now, 10 movie theaters in Kabul screen India’s Bollywood blockbusters throughout the day, and a Bollywood film is being made in the Afghan capital for the first time in more than a decade.

“We have a long relationship, we share our joys and sorrows,” said Mr. Momtaz of the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi.

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