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Page last updated at 10:38 GMT, Thursday, 8 October 2009 11:38 UK

India: Afghanistan's influential ally

Scene of the blast in Kabul
Indians have been targeted in Afghanistan before

India believes its embassy was the target of a bomb attack in the Afghan capital, Kabul. If confirmed, it would be the second attack on the embassy in just over a year. The BBC's Soutik Biswas examines why India, one of Afghanistan's closest allies, might be chosen as a target.

A day before the explosion in Kabul, India hosted an international meeting in the capital, Delhi.

The subject, ironically, was: "Peace and stability in Afghanistan, the way ahead."

But it also pointed to India's growing clout in Afghanistan - it appears to be more than the "soft power" which India's junior foreign minister Shashi Tharoor had once described as the country's "greatest asset" in Afghanistan.

After the fall of the Taliban in 2001 India moved quickly to regain its strategic depth in Afghanistan.

It opened two new consulates in Herat and Mazhar-e-Sharif and reopened two others in Kandahar and Jalalabad which had been shut since 1979.

Leading donor

India also became one of Kabul's leading donors - it has pledged to spend $1.2bn on helping rebuild the country's shattered infrastructure, making it the sixth largest bilateral donor.

Funds have been committed for education, health, power and telecommunications. There has also been money in the form of food aid and help to strengthen governance.

India is building the country's new parliament building, erecting power transmission lines in the north, and building more than 200km (125 miles) of roads.

It is digging tube wells in six provinces, running sanitation projects and medical missions, and working on lighting up 100 villages using solar energy. It is also building a dam and handing out scholarships to young Afghan students.

India has also given at least three Airbus planes to Afghanistan's ailing national airline. Several thousand Indians are engaged in development work.

Work on the projects has also moved briskly.

In January, India completed building the 218km Zaranj-Delaram highway in south-west Afghanistan near the Iranian border.

In May, an India-made power transmission line to Kabul and a sub-station were opened, bringing 24-hour electricity to the capital for the first time in 17 years.

The new parliament building in Kabul and a new dam in Herat should be ready by next year.

'High profile'

Bilateral trade has grown rapidly, reaching $358m in 2007-2008.

"India's reconstruction strategy was designed to win over every sector of Afghan society, to give India a high profile with Afghans, gain the maximum political advantage and, of course, undercut Pakistani influence," says analyst Ahmed Rashid.

Pakistan has had misgivings about increasing Indian influence in Afghanistan since the Taliban were ousted.

"Afghanistan has been a prize that Pakistan and India have fought over directly and indirectly for decades," wrote analyst Robert D Kaplan.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf openly accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai of kow-towing to India. Islamabad has also said the Indian consulates in Kandahar and Jalalabad were funnelling arms and money to insurgents in Pakistan's troubled Balochistan region.

Afghani women sew during training at a vocational training centre of Self Employed Women"s Association (SEWA), a self help group in Ahmadabad, India.
India is sponsoring vocational training of Afghan nationals

All this once provoked Mr Karzai, who went to university in India, to say: "If Pakistan is worried about the role of India, let me assure [you], I have been very specific in telling the Indians that they cannot use Afghan soil for acts of aggression against another country."

Analysts say Pakistan believes its influence is declining in post-war Afghanistan.

"India's success in Afghanistan stirred up a hornets' nest in Islamabad which came to believe that India was 'taking over Afghanistan'," says Ahmed Rashid in his book Descent Into Chaos.

Changing fortunes

Local Taliban are blamed for attacking and kidnapping Indians in the country.

There have been explosions and grenade attacks on the Indian consulates in Herat and Jalalabad.

In January 2008, two Indian and 11 Afghan security personnel were killed and several injured in an attack on the Zaranj-Delaram road.

In November 2005, a driver with India's state-run Border Roads Organisation was abducted and killed by the Taliban while working on the road.

There have been other attacks on Indians too.

In 2003, an Indian national working for a construction company was killed by unknown attackers in Kabul's Taimani district.

In 2006, an Indian telecommunications engineer was abducted and killed in the southern province of Zabul.

India's fortunes in Afghanistan have swung back and forth for much of the past two decades

A staunch ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, India supported the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

This decision made India hugely unpopular among Afghans.

Pervez Musharraf
President Musharraf had accused Afghanistan of kow-towing to India

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, who were fighting Soviet troops.

So when the Taliban swept to power and put an end to a bloody civil conflict among warlords, India was left without any influence in the country.

It ended up backing the Northern Alliance, which controlled territory north of the Shomali plains near Kabul.

Pakistan, on the other hand, backed and recognised the pariah Taleban regime and gained further strategic depth in the region.

Afghanistan's interior ministry said the 2008 attack on the Indian embassy was carried out "in co-ordination and consultation with an active intelligence service in the region".

It was clearly alluding to Pakistani agents, who have been blamed for a number of attacks in Afghanistan.

We may never know precisely who carried out the attacks.

But the bombing points to the "Great Game" still being played out between neighbours seeking to gain influence in Afghanistan.



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