US describes India as ‘economic linchpin’ for Afghan

Washington: Amid Chuck Hagel's controversial remarks on India's role in Afghanistan, a top US official has termed New Delhi as the "economic linchpin" for the war-torn country's future after the withdrawal of American troops.

Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake yesterday termed India as one of the most trusted and valuable partners of the US in the region, noting that "any discussion of South Asia has to start with India."

"We appreciate very much the significant role that India is playing in Afghanistan. In fact, we see India as kind of the economic linchpin for future," Blake told lawmakers during a hearing by Asia and the Pacific Sub-committee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Hagel, the new Defence Secretary, in a video remarks in 2011 had claimed, "India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border".

Reacting to this, the Indian Embassy here said, "Such comments attributed to Senator Hagel, who has been a long- standing friend of India and a prominent votary of close India-US relations are contrary to the reality of India's unbounded dedication to the welfare of Afghan people.

Blake, however, said that India will play an important role in the process of turning Afghanistan into a trade-based economy from an "aid-based economy" once the US spendings get scaled down after the withdrawal of troops in 2014.

"As our troops (and) their spending draws down, it's going to be much more important now to establish a private-sector basis for the Afghan economy and to make a trade-based economy and not an aid-based economy. India is such an important role to play in that," said Blake.

The official, who was in New Delhi last week for the trilateral dialogue with India and Afghanistan, said India has a very large investment programme in Afghanistan.

"It has invested in things like the Hajigak iron ore deposit that's going to be probably an USD 8 billion to USD 10 billion investment. It hosted a major investment conference last year to promote foreign investment into Afghanistan. It has its own very substantial assistance programme of approximately USD 2 billion," he said.

"India is really at the heart of all of those efforts and is such an important partner for us," Blake said.