Afghanistan, India unveil strategic road

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai and India’s foreign minister opened a new road on Thursday that will help link Afghanistan with a port in Iran and challenge Pakistani dominance of trade routes into the landlocked country.

The 220-km (135-mile) road in the southwest Afghan province of Nimroz is the centrepiece of a $1.1 billion Indian reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. It has drawn sniping from Pakistan, worried about its rival’s growing influence there.

India, denied access through Pakistan, hopes to be able to deliver goods to Afghanistan through the Iranian port of Chahbahar, and this has triggered fears in Pakistan it is being encircled.

“This project symbolises India’s strong commitment towards development of Afghanistan,” said Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

“It also symbolises the strong determination of the government and people of these two countries that they will not succumb to the pressure of the forces of terror,” added Mukherjee, who said he had discussed intelligence-sharing with his Afghan counterpart Rangeen Dadfar Spanta.

A suicide bombing at the Indian embassy in Kabul last year killed at least 58 people, including two Indian diplomats. India and Afghanistan blamed Pakistani intelligence for the blast, an allegation backed by the United States, which said there was evidence of involvement. Pakistan angrily rejected the charges.

The attack also stirred fears South Asia’s nuclear armed neighbours had taken their rivalry to Afghanistan in a proxy war. Tensions are running high between the two countries since the November attacks in Mumbai which killed 179 people.

India has blamed those attacks on Pakistani militants and is frustrated at what it sees as Pakistan’s slowness at arresting the planners.

Eleven Indian workers and 126 Afghan police and soldiers, who were providing security for the road, were killed during its construction, said Mukherjee. “In fact, for the construction of (every) 1.5 km (1 mile) of road, one human life was sacrificed.”

The road, which cost $150 million and was entirely funded by India, runs from Delaram in Nimroz to Zaranj on the Iranian border, which connects to the Iranian port of Chahbahar. It opens up an alternate route into Afghanistan, which now relies mostly on goods transported overland from ports in Pakistan.