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Last Updated: Friday, 26 August 2005, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
India renews historic Afghan ties

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Delhi

Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh wants a 'prosperous and strong' Afghanistan
When Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh steps off his aircraft in Afghanistan on Sunday, he will be hoping to strengthen his country's historic ties with that country.

It is the first visit to the country by an Indian prime minister for 29 years.

However, Delhi has been working hard to develop its ties with the new Afghan regime following the overthrow of the Taleban in 2001.

It moved swiftly to establish diplomatic posts in the country, hoping to counter the influence of its long-standing rival, Pakistan.

Indeed, land-locked Afghanistan placed strategically between Central and South Asia has long been a backdrop for a Cold War-style Great Game between the two nuclear neighbours.

For much of the past two decades, India has been wrong-footed in its Afghan policy.

In 1979, it was one of the few countries to support the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - a decision which made the country vastly unpopular in that country.

A decade later, it continued to back the Communist-regime of President Najibullah, while Pakistan threw its entire support behind the ethnic Pashtun mujahideen warlords, particularly the Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

When the Taleban swept to power, India had no presence or influence left in the country.

It countered Pakistan by strongly backing the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, which controlled the narrow sliver of Afghan territory north of the Shomali plains.

Much of Indian support flowed in through Tajikistan, where it established a massive and influential embassy.

There are many suggestions that this is the route through which it also sent military hardware and other supplies to the Northern Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Masood.

Ethnic ties

With the fall of the Taleban, India saw its chance to reassert its influence in the country, particularly as many Afghans were openly unhappy with Pakistan's support of the Taleban.

Ahmed Shah Masood poster
India was a backer of the Northern Alliance
Delhi is also keen to widen its appeal beyond the Tajik and Uzbek communities which dominate the north and reach out to the ethnic Pashtuns, traditionally close to Pakistan and who form the majority of the population.

It has done so by building close ties with the country's charismatic President, Hamid Karzai.

President Karzai was a university student in India and Delhi has also quietly cashed in on his public denouncing of Pakistan's alleged support to supporters of the former Taleban regime and al-Qaeda militants.

"It is vital for India to make inroads among the Pashtuns if it wants to enhance its presence and blunt Pakistan's influence in Afghanistan," Ramakant Dwivedi of the Indian Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis told the AFP news agency.

"India needs to identify parties who will go along with the international community in fighting extremism in Afghanistan because the resurgence of the Taleban is a grave threat to India," he says.


But India has also been able to play on the goodwill it has long enjoyed among ordinary Afghans.

Tribal elders at a Kandahar election meeting
India wants to widen its appeal to all groups
Since the fall of the Taleban, it has pledged $500m of aid in Afghanistan, focusing on building schools, hospitals and highways.

It has done this despite facing difficulties transporting goods to Afghanistan via Pakistan - everything has to be shipped via Iran from the west, adding to costs and time.

A large number of Indian construction workers, engineers and medical personnel have been stationed in Afghanistan, helping rebuild vital installations.

It has picked projects which are economically and politically significant while loaded in symbolism.

It is not surprising, therefore, that one of the key moments of Manmohan Singh's visit will be the laying of the foundation stone of the country's new parliamentary building, built by India.

India which plays on its strong tradition of democracy is keen to be seen to be strengthening democratic institutions in a country, fragmented and torn by ethnic rivalries.

"It is our desire to see Afghanistan prosperous and strong," Mr Singh said in a recent speech.

"We will try to strengthen and support democracy and economic growth in all possible ways."

If this comes at the expense of Pakistan, it will be seen as an added bonus by the Indian government.

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