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Invested in 'soft power,' India awaits Karzai visit

India's lack of a border with Afghanistan, giving it no road access except via Pakistan, and the attacks against its missions and aid workers have blunted New Delhi's enthusiasm and effectiveness.

February 02, 2011|By Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times
  • Afghan President Hamid Karzai inspects a guard of honor as he arrives last week for the opening of the new parliament in Kabul.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai inspects a guard of honor as he arrives last… (S. Sabawoon, EPA )

Reporting from New Delhi — Indian leaders hope visiting Afghan President Hamid Karzai this week will emphasize the safeguarding of mutual interests between the two countries based on historical and cultural links as talks cover the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan expected to begin this summer.

New Delhi has pledged $1.3 billion in reconstruction aid to the violence-racked nation since 2001, making it Afghanistan's fifth-largest donor. It has built roads and hospitals, maintained a generous visa policy and educated many of the country's top leaders, including Karzai, who was scheduled to arrive Wednesday for a two-day visit.

From India's perspective there's a significant factor impeding its bid to expand its influence: Pakistan.

Even as Washington encourages India to take a larger regional role, the Pakistani government in Islamabad remains deeply wary of Indian reconstruction projects, viewing them as fronts for espionage and trouble-making. Pakistani leaders still remember India's use of Afghanistan to help Baluch separatists in Pakistan in the 1970s.

In addition to meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Pratibha Patil, Karzai is to give the keynote speech at a conference on sustainable economic, political and social development.

But India's lack of a shared border with Afghanistan, giving it no road access except through Pakistan, and the growing number of suicide attacks against its missions and aid workers have blunted New Delhi's enthusiasm and effectiveness.

"The way we look at it, our presence is largely economic and largely a manifestation of soft power," said G. Parthasarathy, a former ambassador to Pakistan. "You can't get around Pakistan."

Analysts said India doesn't expect the United States to fully withdraw by 2014, which should make any tilt toward extremism in Afghanistan less pronounced.

The influence of Taliban militants could be contained by Afghanistan's neighbors, some said. Russia is wary of illegal drugs entering its territory and could well support the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the north. And Iran is wary of Taliban influence on its border, checking the movement's advance in the west.

India's major interests in Afghanistan are strategic, ensuring that terrorists don't wash up on its shores, and economic, especially access to energy needed to fuel its red-hot economy.

Indian officials hope to hear this week how Karzai sees national reconciliation playing out, what role he expects the Taliban to play and on what terms, analysts said.

"India has spent so much on reconstruction, it wants to know that its investment is safeguarded," said C. Raja Mohan, a security analyst and columnist with the Indian Express newspaper.

India also has expressed interest in two pipeline projects, one of which is a $7.6-billion project to carry natural gas from Turkmenistan to the Indian town of Fazilka on the border with Pakistan, about 230 miles northwest of New Delhi.

Given the geography, however, both conduits would have to run through Pakistan, leaving India's energy security vulnerable to a neighbor it has fought three wars with since independence in 1947.

"Both pipelines have a 'P' in the middle for Pakistan," said D. Suba Chandran, an analyst with the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in New Delhi. "We like to say that Afghanistan is the gateway to Central Asia, but if you can read a map, Pakistan is the gateway."

U.S. diplomatic cables written in 2007 and recently released by WikiLeaks outline various ways India could expand its soft power in Afghanistan, including police and election training, food aid, sports and the spread of Bollywood.

But Bollywood films are a tool that must be handled carefully, some said, given the danger that, despite the productions' popularity, Islamists could resent the movies' dancing and merrymaking.

"We play our cultural thing very carefully," Parthasarathy said. "If, through cable and DVD, this gets people to treat women better, though, that's a plus."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Anshul Rana in The Times' New Delhi Bureau contributed to this report.

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