Even as New Delhi keeps tabs on international conferences that will unveil the West's plans in the post-2014 situation when most NATO troops will leave Afghanistan, India is keeping itself engaged in a wide number of areas with the focus on the gradually unfolding economic opportunities.

With about 400 Afghans landing in India every day for reasons ranging from medical treatment to education, training, consultations on mineral tenders and reconciliation of insurgent groups, New Delhi is hoping to activate the Partnership Council which will push forward the India-Afghan strategic partnership agreement (SPA).

The Partnership Council, to be chaired by the two countries' respective Foreign Ministers, will have working groups to flesh out the intentions expressed in the SPA such as capacity building in the security, education and civil society sectors besides scouting for opportunities in the hydrocarbon and mineral sectors.

In addition to eyeing six petroleum blocks in the placid northern Afghanistan and copper mines in four different parts of the country — some wrecked by violence and others quiet, India will also be looking to safeguard the hard-won “jewel of Afghanistan's mining sector” — the Hajigak iron ore mine.

After winning three out of four Hajigak blocks, India is facing resistance from competitors who lost out, especially western companies that had tied up with local strongmen to form “joint ventures.”

Apart from the oil blocks whose fate will be known by June, India is also interested in at least three copper mines — one near Pakistan, the other close to Iran and the third near the Uzbek-dominated area.

Talks with Tehran

On a parallel track, India is talking to countries on Afghanistan's northern and western flanks to work out evacuation routes for minerals as well as to bring in aid and goods. Tehran is seen as an important player and India is keen to hold more meetings like the one held with at least a dozen countries in January this year during which seamless corridors from the Iranian ports of Chabar and Bandar Abbas to Afghanistan, Central Asia and the Caucasus were discussed.

The India-built road which connects the Iranian border with Afghanistan's garland highway is already in place and a road from the Afghanistan-Iran border to Chabar is functional. Iran is now planning to construct a rail link to the edge of the India-built road and some other rail tracks that will provide alternative routes.

Security key factor

But security remains the key. Officials admit it will be a “long haul” before plans fall in place. In this respect, India is keeping a close eye on three factors — the military posture to be adopted by NATO after 2014, contours of a strategic pact that Afghanistan and the U.S. plan to sign and the political process involving the still-recalcitrant Taliban groups.

“Once the strategic partnership agreement is signed and the world is aware of NATO's plans, we will have a better idea,” said official sources. “More important is the political process,” they added, while referring to the several ideas that have been aired — such as talks between the U.S. and a Taliban faction in Qatar, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's call to Pakistan to bring out militants aligned with it out of the closet and Kabul's own efforts with local groups.

“We have to wait and see if Pakistan will be forthcoming in facilitating meetings between the government and opposition groups and whether U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar can produce results. Other factors are the capacity of the Afghan security forces to combat threats and the mentoring role that NATO will play,” they added.

India appears to favour a “reasonable presence” of western troops so that there is no slide back to the pre-1996 situation when only the “forces of a neighbouring country were present.” India has in place contingency plans in case the security situation worsens but does not think that would happen if the international community remains involved in consolidating gains made over the past 10 years.

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