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Delhi-Kabul air freight service to start from Monday

LiveMint logoLiveMint 18-06-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: As Pakistan begins to reassert itself in Afghanistan as evidenced by the spiralling violence, India is making a move to deepen its economic linkages with the war-torn country with the start of an air freight service connecting New Delhi and Kabul that is also aimed at stabilizing the fragile Afghan economy.

The first cargo flight—operated by Afghanistan’s national carrier Ariana—will leave Kabul for Delhi on Monday, according to a Twitter post by Indian ambassador to Afghanistan Manpreet Vohra.

The move circumvents Pakistan’s attempts to limit Indian engagement with Afghanistan —with its refusal to permit Indian goods to be sent overland.

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To be sure, the proposal to start an air service to ferry cargo between South Asia’s biggest economy and landlocked Afghanistan has been in the works for a while—the decision was taken during a visit by President Ashraf Ghani to India last year.

But analysts are of the view that the timing is significant coming as it does amid growing concerns that India might be losing ground thanks to new moves by countries like Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia and against the backdrop of a US distracted by domestic issues.

“There is a sense that India has to do much more in this context and asserting connectivity with Afghanistan, which has been a major bottleneck, is seen as one of the ways to do this,” said Harsh V. Pant, professor of International Relations at King’s College, London.

New Delhi has been one of the top international donors in Afghanistan, having delivered $2.2 billion worth of aid to Afghanistan and pledged $1 billion more last year.

Since 2001, when the Taliban was ousted from Kabul, India has relied on Western support, led by the US, to stabilise Afghanistan and defeat the Taliban. But with the new US administration headed by Donald Trump, more worried about the threat posed by the hard line Islamic State with its stronghold in Syria than the Taliban, there are concerns in India that the Taliban—seen as backed by Pakistan—could be presented as a viable stakeholder in the Afghan peace process.

New Delhi has been one of the top international donors in Afghanistan, having delivered $2.2 billion worth of aid to Afghanistan and pledged $1 billion more last year

India’s concerns seemed justified when China and Russia backed such a role for the Taliban at a regional meeting hosted by Moscow in April. Russia’s support for the Taliban also comes as Moscow cultivates closer ties with Islamabad.

In the 1990s, India, Russia and Iran were together in backing Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance resistance group ranged against the Taliban. News reports say Iran too has now changed tack and is tactically allied with the Taliban.

With Russia and Iran having their own tensions with the US —over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and with alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US elections as well as over the Iran nuclear deal clinched last year—India, Iran and Russia aren’t seen as being on the same page on Afghanistan any longer.

With the spiral of violence escalating in Afghanistan, the US now seems thinking of increasing troop levels in the country. The US and its allies drew down troops in Afghanistan—once numbering in the tens of thousands. Weary of the long stay since 2001, the bulk of Western troops went home in 2014 with just a token presence of about 8,400 remaining.

“There is a sense that security will be ramped up,” Pant said. “But so far we have not seen anything in terms of policy. For now it seems the Pentagon has the upper hand. What entails is not clear,” he said.

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