India should restart energy and educational ties, urge pro-Taliban sources

The main challenge in the last few years was to ensure security and flow of finances, and both these factors are being addressed, sources said

April 17, 2023 12:25 am | Updated 09:22 am IST - NEW DELHI

The recent understanding between Iran and Saudi Arabia has removed a long-standing factor of insecurity as there is convergence of interests between Riyadh and Tehran over the future of Kabul, political and commercial sources from Afghanistan have said. Speaking to The Hindu from Kabul and Dubai, these representatives, who are working with the Taliban to bring in investment and restart the Afghan economy, said the regional changes are also an opportunity for India to reboot its works in Afghanistan’s infrastructure sector. The remarks came a day after the Taliban’s “Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs” Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar Akhund met with the Afghan Chamber of Industries and Mines (ACIM), when both sides agreed to restart a major electricity project that was being built by an Indian entity till August 2021, when the Taliban came to power through a military takeover.

“According to our assessment, the work on the power project from Shaberghan to Dasht e Alwan is almost 90% complete, but the Indian company involved in it left because of the security situation at that time. Now, the situation is much better and we are reaching out to them to come and complete the remaining work as electricity demand is very high in Afghanistan at present,” Shirbaz Karimzada, head of the ACIM, who spoke from Dubai, said.

The main challenge in the last few years was to ensure security and flow of finances, and both these factors are being addressed, said Mr. Karimzada, who also heads a consortium of Afghan private sector companies called ‘Afghan Invest’. The consortium was inaugurated with a reported capital of $250 million in Kabul in the summer of 2022, and consists mainly of Afghan business houses based outside the country. It has 13 major companies, which are trying to partner with the Taliban administration to bring in investment into the country.

According to a plan that is being discussed with Mr. Baradar, private Afghan investors will bring in the finance for completing the Shaberghan to Dasht e Alwan electricity project, and the Taliban administration will pay back by leasing mines to the stakeholder companies. Another source from Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said infrastructure and connectivity are major concerns for Afghanistan, and appreciated the India Central Asia Joint Working Group on Chabahar port that took place last week in Mumbai. The source pointed out that the discussion on the port shows the confidence that Iran feels in interacting with Afghanistan in the present regional situation.

“For the past two decades, Iran was denied access to the Afghan market because of American presence in Kabul but that is changing after the withdrawal of U.S. forces and Saudi Arabia’s agreement with Iran that was facilitated by China. Iran has opened a new Iran Afghan Trade Centre in Kabul,” the source said, illustrating the fast-evolving economic situation in Kabul. By ensuring access to Chabahar and by allowing Kabul to use the central Asian road network, Afghanistan can emerge as a transit point for trade between India, central Asia, Iran, Russia and even China. The Hindu was told that Central Asian countries, especially Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are at the forefront of introducing changes on the ground in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan at present has access to China through Pakistan, which according to the ACIM takes more than a month of travel because of administrative difficulties through Pakistan, and an alternative through Central Asia would reduce travel time considerably. “India should sense the unfolding regional equations and restart the projects that it left behind and take new initiatives because unlike other countries, Afghan people have a soft corner for India and that never changes, irrespective of whoever is in power in Kabul,” the representative who works closely with the Taliban said.

Mr. Karimzada said the Chinese were fast taking advantage of the changed ground rules in Kabul, and added, “There are thousands of Chinese engineers working across Afghanistan at present. Apart from gold, chromite and zinc, there is a vast deposit of lithium in Ghazni, Nooristan and Helmand, and the Chinese are exploring these regions.” He urged India to normalise commercial, business and educational ties so that Afghan students can resume studies and India-Afghan business initiatives can take off.

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