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

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 3, 2010; A01

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.

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.

In February, Nawab Khan, an Indian musician who plays a percussion instrument known as a tabla, came to Herat to play a concert sponsored by the Indian government.

"He was sitting right here after the performance," said Tara Chand, consul general of the heavily guarded Indian consulate in Herat. "He played to a full house. All the Afghans took photographs of him with their cellphones. It was a lovely night."

Khan returned to Kabul, to fly home to New Delhi. But during the guesthouse bombings that also killed Bhola Ram, the father of six was crushed to death when the roof collapsed on him.

The guesthouse deaths outraged many Afghans, and Ram's co-workers gathered to pray for him after the attack.

Outside Kabul one recent day, at the Chimtala substation where Ram worked, young Afghans proudly inspected the power plant wearing new work boots and coats donated by India.

Sitting in a sun-streamed classroom, Sayed Arif, 25, and other young engineers were learning how to run the power plant.

"We very much want the Indians here," Arif said, looking out at the power lines that India brought to his country. "That much in Afghanistan we are sure of."

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