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India seeks larger role in stabilizing Afghanistan after NATO drawdown

Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, center, talks to journalists at the opening session of the Delhi Investment Summit on Afghanistan in New Delhi, India on June 28, 2012. (Saurabh Das/AP)

As the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan prepares for the pullout of combat troops by 2014, India cautiously positioned itself Thursday to expand its role in the country’s postwar stabilization by helping direct global business investment there.

Indian officials signaled the move — which came after months of prodding by the United States — by hosting an international conference here to discuss the possibility of investment in Afghanistan’s mines, infrastructure and agriculture. The country’s mineral and hydrocarbon wealth alone is estimated to be between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.

The conference comes just two weeks after the Taliban issued an unusual statement praising India for resisting the U.S. calls for it to play a larger role in Afghanistan, and New Delhi appeared to use the forum to define a unique niche for itself: By taking a lead in promoting investment in Afghanistan, it acknowledged Washington’s vision of achieving long-term stability in the war-torn country. But by restricting itself to the language of commerce, it avoided appearing intrusive — and also nodded to the aversion voiced by Pakistan and the Taliban to the idea of an Indian military presence there.

“We need to offer a narrative of opportunity to counter the anxiety of withdrawal, uncertainty, instability and foreign interference,” India’s foreign minister, S.M. Krishna, told the representatives of firms from 40 countries who attended the conference. “The military drawdown should not result in a political or security vacuum that will be filled by extremists once again. There should be something productive in its place.”

Krishna added: “We need something more enduring, something based on self-interest rather than generosity, that can move the country towards greater self-reliance and inter-dependence.”

India has committed $2 billion to reconstruction and development projects in Afghanistan, including building roads and schools and installing power lines. It also helps train the country’s bureaucrats and police. But so far, its decision to steer clear of a military role has earned it goodwill among Afghans, and it appeared to confirm that stance Thursday.

“With today’s conference, India is saying it is best at giving nonmilitary assistance and that it will help mobilize other countries and coordinate investment so that Afghanistan does not feel left in the lurch after the troops pull out in 2014,” said Lalit Mansingh, a former Indian ambassador to the United States.

The New Delhi conference also comes ahead of a meeting in Tokyo next month when the international community is expected to pledge further financial aid to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s foreign minister, Zalmay Rassoul, said at the conference Thursday that he will present in Tokyo his government’s new goal of encouraging private investment that will eventually “reduce our reliance on international assistance.”

Conference organizers here said that the discussions in New Delhi will feed into the Tokyo gathering.

“India is offering those who will attend the meeting in Tokyo a new, alternate model of engagement in Afghanistan, one that is not solely about security or financial aid,” said Chandrajit Banerjee, director general of the Confederation of Indian Industry, which co-hosted the conference.

But two countries that are probably watching New Delhi’s new diplomatic assertiveness warily are Pakistan and China, analysts said. India and Pakistan have long competed for influence in Afghanistan, and China has expanded its investments in Central Asia in recent years.

Only a couple of Pakistani companies and 14 Chinese companies came to the conference.

“Judging from their representation here, the response appears to be cool,” an Indian Foreign Ministry official said during a background briefing to reporters. “But we don’t expect that every overture of ours will be met with an immediate embrace.”

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.

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