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Now, flights from New Delhi to two more Afghan cities

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-10-2017 Elizabeth Roche

New Delhi: Two more cities in Afghanistan will be connected to New Delhi by air starting this week, giving a fillip to connectivity and people-to-people contacts between the landlocked nation and Asia’s third largest economy. India is one of the biggest donors to war-torn Afghanistan since 2001.

According to a press release from the Indian consulate, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan’s second largest city and capital of Balkh province, will be linked to New Delhi by a direct flight.

The inaugural flight, operated by privately owned Afghan Kam Air, took off from the Maulana Jalalludin Balkhi airport in Mazar-e Sharif for New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, the statement said. Waving off the flight were Mohammad Afzal Hadeed, chairman of the provincial council of Balkh province and Manjish Grover, consul general of India in Mazar-e Sharif, the statement said.

Besides Monday, Kam Air will operate another flight from Mazar-e-Sharif to New Delhi on Wednesday.

The second Afghan city to be linked to New Delhi is Herat in the west. Kam Air will operate two flights—on Tuesdays and Fridays—from Afghanistan’s third largest city to the Indian capital, the statement said.

According to Indian officials, the flight connections are expected to be used by those Afghans seeking medical treatment in India and business travellers.

Even without any prior promotion, Monday’s flight was full, indicating good demand.

Hundreds of Afghans travel to India every year for medical treatment, while many others travel to South Asia’s largest economy for studies and pursuing business opportunities. Prior to the Mazar-e-Sharif-New Delhi link, Kabul was the only city to be connected to New Delhi by air.

Since the ouster of Taliban from Kabul in 2001, India has emerged as one of the biggest donors to Afghanistan, helping in rehabilitation and aid. New Delhi which signed a strategic partnership pact with Afghanistan in 2011, has been largely focussed on rendering economic assistance to the war-ravaged country. But of late, New Delhi has stepped up its profile as a donor—providing four military helicopters to Afghanistan, besides training Afghan soldiers and police personnel.

In his new Afghan policy speech on 22 August, US president Donald Trump called for a more prominent Indian role to stabilise Afghanistan that has seen the rebel Taliban make a remarkable comeback since 2004.

Last week, New Delhi hosted an Afghan trade and investment fair that was also supported by the Afghan and US governments.

The US, which is backing the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul, has been seeking to ensure Afghanistan’s economic independence and sustainability for many years.

A US-supported pact that boosts land connectivity between Afghanistan and Pakistan—the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement —was signed in 2010 in a bid to boost trade and commerce between Afghanistan and other countries in the region.

At the time, it was hoped that the pact would be extended to include India, enabling Indian goods to travel through Pakistan and onwards to Afghanistan. However, tensions between India and Pakistan have belied any hopes of two-way overland trade between India and Afghanistan.

At present, Afghan trucks with Afghan products come up to Torkham on Afghan-Pakistan border where Afghan goods are loaded onto Pakistan trucks that in turn come up to the India-Pakistan border at Wagah. Once the Afghan goods are offloaded, the trucks go back into Pakistan empty, an Indian official said.

In June, India and Afghanistan began operation of a flight to ferry goods between the two countries. India is also looking at developing the Chabahar port on Iran’s coast to improve its access to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan. A consignment of wheat is expected to reach Afghanistan through the Chabahar route in the coming months.

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