29 August 2005

India, Afghanistan moot gas pipeline project

Kabul: India and Afghanistan have, for the first time ever, formally agreed to look at the proposal to run a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Asked whether this was an alternative to the Iranian pipeline -- which the U.S. is opposed to -- Manmohan Singh said India needed both.

29 August 2005
The Hindu

Manmohan, Karzai moot gas pipeline project

Siddharth Varadarajan

Afghanistan keen on seeking closer links with SAARC

  • First visit by an Indian Prime Minister in 29 years
  • India says it needs Iran pipeline project too
  • Afghanistan directly affected by India-Pakistan friendship

  • KABUL: India's South Asian diplomacy took a big step forward with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Afghan President Hamid Karzai mooting — for the first time ever in an official document — Afghanistan participating in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

    The issue was raised by Mr. Karzai during his one-on-one meeting with Dr. Singh here on Sunday.

    "Land bridge"

    The joint statement issued at the end of the meeting noted that in the context of Afghanistan's historic role of being a "land bridge" between Central and South Asia, the country was interested in seeking closer links with SAARC. On his part, Dr. Singh "welcomed this initiative and affirmed India's support for Afghanistan's engagement with SAARC."

    Dr. Singh's visit is the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Afghanistan is 29 years. He is also the first foreign head of state or government to visit here for more than a day. Afghan officials are particularly grateful for this, noting that no visiting VVIP has ever spent the night in Kabul or driven through its streets since the Taliban regime was ousted at the end of 2001.

    Support from Pakistan

    Fielding questions at a joint press conference, Mr. Karzai said he was glad to have received a positive response from India on the issue of SAARC. "We are also glad to have had the same positive response from President Musharraf of Pakistan. So Afghanistan is very keen on SAARC and hopes to be a contributor and receiver [from] that organisation."

    The Indian Government has also, for the first time, flagged its official interest in the proposal to build a gas pipeline from Turkemistan. The idea was first floated by the U.S. energy company, Unocal, during the Taliban days.

    Sunday's joint statement noted: "the two leaders endorsed the need for greater consultation and cooperation in a future project of a Turkmenistan gas pipeline that would pass through Afghanistan and Pakistan."

    Asked if he preferred the Turkmen gas option to the Iranian one, Dr. Singh said India needed both. "It is not a question of preferring one over the other. Our needs for commercial energy are increasing at an explosive rate. ... There is an enormous unmet demand for commercial energy which is set to increase, so we need both the pipelines, the pipeline from Iran-Pakistan-India and the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India one."

    On Pakistan's refusal to grant transit rights for land trade between Afghanistan and India, Mr. Karzai acknowledged this was holding back regional integration.

    But he said the steady progress of the India-Pakistan peace process would take care of this issue too. "We are very happy to see a dialogue for better relations between India and Pakistan," he said. "Afghanistan is directly affected by friendship between these two countries."

    Transit facilities

    As relations improved, "the possibilities of transit from India to Pakistan and Afghanistan and beyond will become a reality." He added that Gen. Musharraf had discussed the issue with him "in a very positive manner." "There is a desire in Pakistan too for transit trade. There has not been a negative response," Mr. Karzai said.

    On his part, Dr. Singh said he was willing to work together with Mr. Karzai and Gen. Musharraf to improve the economic prospects of the region.

    When asked about Pakistani support for a newly resurgent Taliban, neither Dr. Singh nor Mr. Karzai levelled any accusations against Islamabad. The Afghan President merely noted that his Government was working with Pakistan and was confident every country would cooperate in the fight against terrorism. He made it clear that he was looking at India mainly as a source for economic — rather than security or military — assistance. "Any assistance is welcome in all walks of life from India, Pakistan, Iran, but this has to go through the lead-nation structure we have."

    Under this structure, Germany is the lead-nation for police training and the U.S.-led coalition force the principal structure for anything to do with the military.

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