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India to host conference on Afghanistan: US

Washington: India will host a conference on Afghanistan to discuss ways to boost international private sector investment in the war-torn country later this month, a top US official has announced.

This is probably for the first time post 2001 that India is hosting an international conference, of any kind, on Afghanistan, where the country has quietly invested more than USD 2 billion.

Curiously enough the announcement in this regard has come not from India, but from Obama administration`s point man on south and Central Asia ahead of the June 13 Strategic Dialogue between India and the United States.

"India also hosts on June 28th a conference to examine ways to boost international private sector investment in Afghanistan," Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Robert Blake, said in his address to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a prestigious American think-tank.

This conference, Blake said, will feature over 50 Afghan firms with at least 10 of the companies owned by women whose presence will spur direct business-to-business links between Afghan and international firms.

The New Delhi conference then will inform a July 8th government summit in Tokyo that will develop strategies for Afghanistan`s economic development, the senior US official said.

Afghanistan, Blake said, would be one of the key issues of discussion when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton holds talks with the Indian-delegation led by the External Affairs Minister S M Krishna, in Washington on June 13.

"Any discussion of our strategic ties must begin with Afghanistan. The United States and India share a commitment to Afghanistan`s stable and prosperous future and have each signed Strategic Partnership Agreements with the Afghan government," Blake said.

India has committed more than USD 2 billion in assistance since 2001, and is helping reconstruct Afghanistan`s Parliament building, equip the Indira Gandhi Children`s Hospital, and train students for different vocations.

India, he said, shares the American objective to develop the Afghan economy and put it on a more sustainable, private sector led footing to help reduce reliance on aid. For example, it will invest billions to develop Afghanistan`s Hajigak iron ore deposit, he added.

Observing that a crucial part of helping Afghanistan to establish an economy, that is based on trade and the private sector, will be to enhance regional economic integration by embedding Afghanistan into the South and Central Asian region through a network of roads, railways, and energy infrastructure, Blake said India is playing a major role here.

Referring to the recent agreement on development of Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, Blake said this will be a major regional market for Afghan exports. It will continue to help grow Afghanistan`s mining, health services, agriculture, and energy sectors, he said.

"For centuries, the historic Grand Trunk Road connected the bazaars of Kabul with Punjab and Bengal. Now, from a Northern Distribution Network that helps link the markets of northern Europe, Central Asia to Mazar-e-Sharif, to the critical links being established through the Afghanistan- Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement, along with the promising trade normalisation being forged between India and Pakistan, it is possible to envision new trade corridors linking the markets of Europe and China to India and beyond," he said.

"This brings us to a new are of opportunity that is now under discussion between our two governments and others in the region that is integration to India`s east," Blake said.

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