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Indian PM's Kabul Visit Aims to Strengthen Relationship with Afghanistan


Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh begins a two-day visit to Afghanistan Sunday, the first by an Indian leader in almost 30 years. The visit aims at consolidating ties with Kabul.

Indian officials say Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Afghanistan will signal New Delhi's strong commitment to helping rebuild the war-ravaged nation.

Mr. Singh will announce a fresh assistance package for a variety of projects. India is among the top donors to Afghanistan, and is involved in training Afghan armed forces, police and diplomats as well as building infrastructure such as hospitals, schools and roads.

The Indian prime minister also will take part in a groundbreaking ceremony for a new Parliament building being constructed in Kabul with Indian assistance.

India had close links with Kabul in the past, but ties weakened in the 1980s and 90s following Afghanistan's invasion by the former Soviet Union and then the rise of the Taleban. Analysts say New Delhi is now keen to regain influence in the country, and is among the strongest regional supporters of President Hamid Karzai, who once studied in India.

In his Independence Day speech earlier this month, Prime Minister Singh promised to support democracy and economic growth in Afghanistan.

Bharat Karnad, a foreign affairs analyst with New Delhi's independent Center for Policy Research, says Mr. Singh's visit will underline India's commitment to building a strong Afghanistan.

"Basically it is a gesture to express solidarity with the Karzai government," he explained. "There is no question that a democratic Afghanistan would be a great stabilizing force, and whatever its troubles, the fact is that the Karzai government needs to be supported and strengthened."

Indian Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran says India wants to help the process of building ethnic harmony in the country. New Delhi was a key supporter of the Afghan and coalition forces that overthrew the hard-line Islamist Taleban government.

"On the political side, really our effort has been to contribute to the strengthening of this national consensus, interethnic harmony in Afghanistan because we believe that for the return of political stability it is important for the different ethnic communities to work together," Mr. Saran said. "We have supported President Karzai in this direction the past and we will continue to do so."

India, however, complains that its efforts to help Afghanistan are hampered by Pakistan's refusal to grant New Delhi transit rights through its territory. That means Indian goods heading to Kabul must travel via a longer route through Iran.

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