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US seeks India's help in Afghanistan

By Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC
April 04, 2009 11:36 IST
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The Barack Obama administration is determined to not repeat the mistakes made by the preceding George W Bush government. The United States President's team, which has outlined its comprehensive strategy toward Afghanistan, will not refer to it as nation building, though ostensibly that is exactly what it will be to a large extent. America is also hoping for greater support and assistance from India, which has already proved effective in Afghanistan in infrastructure development.

Senior administration officials acknowledged that US wants India to be a key stakeholder in the development efforts in this beleaguered country, where winning the hearts and minds of the populace will be imperative in the war against the al Qaeda, Taliban and other extremists elements.

Earlier, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's special envoy Shyam Saran, during his visit to Washington, had expressed concern that the US may give up on Afghanistan. He added that the US policy in Afghanistan should not be restricted to fighting terrorism militarily, but countering this phenomenon through development of the country, as India had been doing.

Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher, the Obama administration's point man for South Asia, told recently, during a conference call with a select group of journalists, that "we recognise India's strong interest in stopping terrorism in the region."

He also spoke about India's "important contribution in Afghanistan -- I think their total (contribution to the rehabilitation and reconstruction in Afghanistan) is up to about $1.2 billion."

"They've been very instrumental in key areas like training, civil service, and helping build Afghan institutions. So, we see a continuing role for India and we certainly see a strong interest in India," he said.

Boucher added, "Let's face it, the whole goal is to stop terrorism that threatens everybody in the region, including India, and we all recognise that's going to require a sustained interest."

Asked if India would be invited to contribute troops to President Obama's new strategy, Boucher said, "India is a special case. There are regional issues involved and India has said they are not trying to do anything militarily and we all respect and appreciate that."

Other senior administration sources, who wished not to be identified, told that India's experience and expertise on helping the US in its developments efforts would be invaluable, because "there is a clear recognition that Indian aid to Afghanistan has been effective, whereas we see a lot of criticism about the way in which we have distributed our aid."

"So, there are lessons to be learned from India about how they have achieved maximum effectiveness of its aid programmes in Afghanistan. There is a desire to understand how India has been effective in asserting its influence there and having a positive impact in terms of its aid delivery," they added.

According to the sources, when Special Representative Richard Holbrooke visits the region again, maybe as early as next week, New Delhi would once again be an important stopover for him. "We will continue to explore how we can work with India and how India can help us in ensuring free and fair election in Afghanistan, because we know that India has the same goals of wanting to see democracy succeed there," they said.

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Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC