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Powell Heads to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan - 2004-03-13

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is scheduled to leave Sunday on a trip to meet with leaders in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He first stops in New Delhi where he plans to discuss recent agreements to expand U.S. and Indian cooperation on nuclear and space technology and the revived peace process between India and Pakistan. Relations between India and Pakistan have dramatically improved since Mr. Powell's last visit to the region.

In July of 2002 Secretary Powell visited New Delhi and Islamabad amid high tensions as the countries massed hundreds of thousands of troops along their borders. Mr. Powell's visit to the region was aimed at defusing that volatile situation. Nearly two years later, the countries have restored full diplomatic relations, resumed transportation links and begun comprehensive peace talks aimed at resolving issues -including disputes over Kashmir- that still divide the nations.

Besides speaking with Indian leaders about the ongoing talks with Pakistan, the Secretary plans to discuss a recent technology sharing agreement reached with Indian leaders in January. The agreement calls for U.S. cooperation on nuclear and space technology in return for stronger Indian efforts to enact strict export controls on sophisticated technology.

U.S. officials have expressed concern over the spread of sensitive technology in the region where a sophisticated nuclear black market has already been uncovered. South Asia analyst Ambassador Karl Inderfurth says the agreement marks an important step in U.S. India relations.

"These are areas that have been sensitive for a very long time in U.S.- India relations. And that is because of U.S. concerns about India's nuclear weapons program as well as its space program which has a military application," he said. "Now they are trying to sort through these things so we can cooperate on these issues and do it in a way that will not contribute to India's military plans, but will recognize that our two countries do have areas of cooperation that have not been explored in the past."

Recent agreements between the two countries also call for increased trade in high technology. India has experienced rapid economic growth in service and knowledge-based industries that rely on technology.

Some analysts say the country's gradual emergence as an economic powerhouse overshadows even its' dicey relations with Pakistan. Sumit Ganguly is a South Asia analyst at Indiana University who says there are large parts of India where the economy and divisive regional issues dominate the political agenda.

"There are significant parts of India where Pakistan is of absolutely no concern," said Sumit Ganguly. "Where economic development is of much greater importance, where the local rivalries - whether or not we're going to get water from the neighboring state is of greater significance that what happens along the Jhelum [river dividing India and Pakistan]."

The Jhelum river flows through Kashmir. And although Mr. Ganguly says people in some parts of India may not be interested in what goes on there, international observers are.

Mr. Powell is expected to lend U.S. support to the ongoing peace process between the two nations.

And in what is perhaps the most symbolic evidence of their growing ties, India and Pakistan have resumed their cricket rivalry. Ambassador Inderfurth says Secretary Powell shouldn't overlook cricket's significance.

"When he's there he also better pay attention to the sport of cricket," said Karl Inderfurth. "Because India and Pakistan after 15 years are resuming their cricket relationship which is of course great interest to both countries"

Thousands of Indians have applied for visas to travel to Pakistan for the matches which begin on Saturday and tens of millions of people are expected to watch on TV.

Mr. Powell's trip comes amidst the frenzy over the matches, and analysts say his visit may be overshadowed by the popularity of so-called cricket diplomacy.