India's eager courtship of Afghanistan comes at a steep price

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 3, 2010

CHELEBAAK, AFGHANISTAN -- Along a rugged stretch of road in the shadow of the snow-covered Hindu Kush mountains, villagers in mud-brick huts praised the newest addition to their vista: a series of massive steel towers that reach into the clouds.

The towers, part of a $1.3 billion aid package from India, carry electricity to a crippled region that has long gone without. They also represent an intense competition between India and arch-rival Pakistan for influence in whatever kind of Afghanistan emerges from the U.S.-led war.

To blunt India's eager courtship of Afghanistan, Pakistan is pouring $300 million of its own money and resources into a nation it also views as key to the stability of volatile South Asia, as well as a potentially lucrative business partner.

The economic stakes are especially enormous for India, the far richer nation, as it seeks energy to fuel its rise as a global economic power. Afghanistan is a bridge to Central Asia's vast gas and oil reserves, which are coveted by India and Pakistan, both of which have nuclear weapons but barely enough electricity.

India's efforts have come at a cost: It has suffered four attacks on its interests in Afghanistan in the past two years, which have killed at least 101 people and wounded 239. Attacks on two Kabul guesthouses in February killed seven Indians, including a visiting musician and the chief engineer of the Chelebaak electricity project.

For U.S. officials, India's increasing presence in Afghanistan is causing new security and diplomatic problems in a country where more than 1,000 American troops have died in more than eight years of war. Washington also fears upsetting the delicate balance in its relations with Islamabad.

"Let's be honest with one another: There are real suspicions in both India and Pakistan about what the other is doing in Afghanistan," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters after a recent trip to New Delhi.

Washington is feeling pressure from Pakistan to limit India's role in Afghanistan. Each nation fears, to a degree that outsiders often find irrational, that an Afghanistan allied with the other would be threat to its security. Pakistan considers Afghanistan, another majority-Muslim nation, a natural ally and is deeply suspicious of India's efforts there.

"We don't want to be flanked by hostile elements," said Mansoor Ahmad Khan, deputy chief of mission in the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul, referring to Pakistan's location -- sandwiched between Afghanistan to the west and India to the east.

U.S. and NATO officials said they feared militant groups linked to Pakistan would step up attacks on Indian aid workers and other India-linked targets in Afghanistan, complicating efforts to stabilize the country.

Indian officials have publicly stated that they suspect a Pakistani role in the attacks against Indians; Pakistani officials have rejected the charges. Indian and U.S. intelligence officials have linked Pakistan to the 2008 bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, which killed more than 50 people, saying Pakistani intelligence had collaborated with militants. Indian officials also suspect Pakistani involvement in a suicide bombing at the embassy in October, which killed 17 people.

In the guesthouse attacks, Afghan intelligence officials publicly blamed Lashkar-i-Taiba, a Pakistan-based militant group that has been implicated in the 2008 siege in Mumbai that killed 165 people.

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