India's new road to Afghanistan

NEW DELHI Sept. 6. As Pakistan continues to deny India overland access to Afghanistan, the Government is accelerating work on a project to build an alternative route through Iran. A detailed survey work on a road that will connect Afghanistan to Iran has been completed and is awaiting financial clearance.

The political urgency of developing a new road to Afghanistan, that was announced during the visit here of the Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, in January, has been underlined once again by Pakistan's latest refusal to let India move the much-needed military assistance to Kabul.

The Pakistani reluctance reflects the "political anxiety in Islamabad at the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan", sources here say. It also points to the rapidly deteriorating relations between Islamabad and Kabul, the sources add.

As part of an international programme to build a brand new Afghan National Army, India had agreed to deliver 300 military transport vehicles to Kabul. A contingent of 115 vehicles, trucks, jeeps and ambulances had been ready for delivery since April and was awaiting Pakistani clearance.

The ANA is widely seen as critical in the efforts to reconstitute the Afghan state, ending pervasive war-lordism and creating a cohesive national instrument to deal with security threats.

Both Kabul and Washington were keen on having an early delivery of the Indian assistance. Despite requests from both these capitals, Islamabad has held back for months a decision on allowing these vehicles overland to Afghanistan. Having given up on hopes for a positive decision from Pakistan, India is now preparing to send these vehicles via Iran.

The Indian military assistance in the form of 300 vehicles is only a nominal contribution to the development of the security sector in Afghanistan. India is not involved in such major tasks as supply of weapons to the ANA. Even this minimal involvement appears unacceptable to Pakistan.

Pakistan's frustration at the loss of political influence in Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban about two years ago has been compounded by the welcoming attitude of the new Government in Kabul towards India.

Islamabad has also launched a vicious campaign against the establishment of Indian consulates in key cities of Afghanistan. A few days ago, there was a grenade attack on the Indian consulate in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

Late last year, Pakistan had disallowed the supply of a large consignment of wheat from India to Afghanistan. India converted the wheat into biscuits for school children and transported them to Afghanistan through Iran.

The land route through Pakistan is the simplest way of moving goods between India and Afghanistan. By giving India overland access to Afghanistan, Pakistan could garner a sizeable revenue by charging transit fees on the movement of goods.

Ideally, trade and transit arrangements among the three countries could also ease some of the massive challenges facing the international community in reconstructing Afghanistan. Besides avoiding trade with India, Pakistan has also sought to leverage Afghanistan's reliance on the Karachi port as its only gateway to the world.

To break out of Pakistan's grip, Kabul has joined Teheran and New Delhi an alternative economic lifeline through Iran. Under this project with major geopolitical implications, Iran is developing a new port at Chahbahar on the Makran coast which is much closer to India than the current facilities at Bandar Abbas.

From Chahbahar there is a road running parallel to the border with Pakistan and then enters Afghanistan and connects to the main trunk route that links all major Afghan cities. It is this stretch of road in Western Afghanistan that India has agreed to build.

Working at an unusual pace, Indian teams have finished the survey work in Iran and Afghanistan. The Department of Road Transport has evaluated the results of the survey and the project proposal is being moved for financial clearance. India wants to quickly complete this road which gives it reliable access to Afghanistan. This new route will also reduce land-locked Afghanistan's historic dependence on Pakistan for transit trade.

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