NEW DELHI - A four-day Afghanistan trade-and-investment show, sponsored by the United States and aimed at providing new opportunities for businesses in the war-torn country, got underway Wednesday in New Delhi, but the mammoth challenge of that task was underlined even before the conference began.
Afghanistan's Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who was scheduled to inaugurate the show along with Indian and American officials, could not do so because a rocket attack aimed at the Kabul airport Wednesday morning delayed his arrival in the Indian capital.
The Indian and American initiative, the biggest of its kind, aims at rebuilding Afghanistan's economy and boosting private sector investment in the country.
The "Passage to Prosperity" show has drawn more than 200 Afghan businessmen who want to find new markets for products such as carpets, spices and farm produce. Representatives of companies in areas such as health care, infrastructure and energy have come, hoping to get support from Indian investors.
The show is being held as the U.S. calls on India to play a stronger role in Afghanistan, especially in economic assistance and development.
"We see India's role as critical in the region and view India as the central partner in supporting Afghanistan's emergence from decades of conflict," U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires MaryKay Carlson said at the inaugural function.
Indian Finance Minister Arun Jaitley underlined the need for an expansion of trade, saying that rebuilding Afghanistan's economy was extremely important.
India is Afghanistan's main regional development partner; it has provided more than $3 billion in economic assistance and has built roads, dams and the parliament building.
Efforts to get trade off the ground, however, have made limited progress.
The main impediment discouraging potential investors is the deteriorating security situation in the country.
Businessman Abdul Qader Habibzadah is attending the trade show in the hope of finding new markets for wool and cashmere yarn, although he admitted there are huge challenges.
"The main problem is security, and after security, transportation is a problem. We do not have good transportation with India. It is a long way," he said.
Although the shortest land route between Afghanistan and India lies through Pakistan, the regional rival allows Afghanistan to send only a limited amount of perishable items over its territory to India, hampering the flow of goods.
In June, India launched an air cargo service between Kabul and New Delhi to provide some respite, but it is a more expensive option.
Some Afghan businessmen at the conference expressed hope that President Donald Trump's commitment to keep U.S. forces in the country will improve the security situation.
Roeen Rahmani, head of Kardan University, which wants to launch a course in medical sciences, is seeking partners in India who will help him in such areas as teaching and providing material and equipment.
For Rahmani, the security situation is worrying, but he said boosting Afghanistan's shattered economy is a far bigger challenge. He said he was optimistic that the event would make a positive impact.
"Especially in Afghanistan right now, the businesses have been very far from the outside world," he said. Opportunities like the trade show "will help and have a lot of impact in getting Afghanistan back in the international arena."