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

The guesthouse bombings shocked many Indians and intensified widespread popular anger against Pakistan. Indians and Afghans were partly enraged because Bhola Ram, the Chelebaak engineer, and several other victims were Indian nationals working on aid projects.

"Bhola Ram's project was almost done when he was killed," said Giliani Lutfi, 45, an Afghan co-worker at the new electrical plant just outside Kabul. "Please tell India, we are so sorry. Ram gave our people power, and that means life to us. It wasn't the Afghan people who stole his life."

While war still rages in parts of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan are building roads, hospitals and schools, as well as undertaking irrigation and power projects -- all while claiming closer links to Kabul.

"Our longest border is with Afghanistan. We have deep cultural and economic and people-to-people ties," said Khan, the Pakistani official in Kabul. "India may be very vocal about their aid projects here, but we don't need to publicize our position. Pakistan's role speaks for itself."

Indian officials note that their country has educated many of Afghanistan's top leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, who has a master's degree from an Indian university.

And when the U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Taliban, India provided intelligence and other military support, according to Rani Mullen, an upcoming fellow at New Delhi's Center for Policy Research.

The competition between the two nations can seem silly at times: When India donated a fleet of buses in the western city of Herat, Pakistan began donating buses decorated with painted Pakistani flags.

But the rivalry also has serious implications for the U.S.-led war. Karzai favors attempts to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban, an idea supported by Pakistan. Indian leaders fear that any Afghan settlement with the Taliban would give Pakistan more influence in Kabul, which they view with alarm.

"If you want to try to reconcile with people who are institutionally and ideologically linked with terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, then caution is advised," Jayant Prasad, the Indian ambassador to Afghanistan, said in an interview at his residence, which is patrolled by armed guards and heavily fortified with sandbag bunkers and razor wire.

New Delhi's diplomatic offensive in Afghanistan is on display at a dusty Kabul construction site, where Indian engineers are working with Afghans to build a $90 million parliament, funded by India.

The floors and walls of the palacelike structure, a gleaming symbol of the new Afghanistan, are to be inlaid with green and rose marble from the Indian state of Rajasthan.

Such Indian-sponsored projects are sprouting from Kabul to Herat, widely considered Afghanistan's cultural heart and home to poets, painters and Sufi mystics. And they continue despite the targeted violence against Indians.

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