Defying Taliban, India hands over crucial highway to Afghanistan

January 22nd, 2009 - 7:43 pm ICT by IANS  

TalibanKabul, Jan 22 (IANS) Unfazed by frequent Taliban attacks including one on its embassy in Kabul last year, India Thursday formally handed over the strategic Zaranj-Delaram highway to Afghan authorities. The crucial road link will loosen Pakistan’s stranglehold over its land-locked neighbour by providing Afghanistan a shorter route to Iran. External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee formally handed over the 218-km road, which links Zaranj on the Iran-Afghan border and Delaram in south Afghanistan to Afghan authorities in the presence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta.

“The completion of the road reflects the determination of both India and Afghanistan that nothing can prevent or hinder collaboration between the two countries,” Mukherjee said at the handover function while describing the project as “a glowing example” of India-Afghanistan cooperation.

“Our cooperation will not stop,” Karzai said while stressing that the completion of the road was a message to those who are against friendship between the two countries.

Mukherjee said: “Our project personnel did face many challenges in the implementation of the project… In effect, one human sacrifice was made for every kilometre and a half constructed.”

It will further regional cooperation by encouraging new trade and transit through Iranian ports and a supplementary access of Afghanistan to the sea, he said.

The construction of the road, built by nearly 300-odd workers and engineers from India’s Border Roads Organisation (BRO), was bitterly opposed by the Taliban and its backers across the border, who have targeted Indian workers involved with the project.

Nearly four years ago, Maniyappan Ramankutty, an Indian driver, was kidnapped and killed while building the crucial Zaranj-Delaram road link. At least six Indians, including a BRO driver and four ITBP soldiers, have been killed in these attacks led by the Taliban militants aiming to discourage India’s increasing involvement in Afghanistan.

The inauguration of the road was kept a top secret due to security reasons. The highway was completed a few months ago and was to be inaugurated last year.

But the attack on the Indian embassy in Kabul and the Mumbai terrorist attacks delayed the plans for a formal opening of the road that is seen as a symbol of India’s unflinching commitment to Afghanistan’s reconstruction and an assertion of its strategic interests in that country.

The road that promises prosperity to the Afghan people will reduce Afghanistan’s dependence on Pakistan for overland access to Iran and Central Asia. It will also provide an alternative route to India to Afghanistan and Central Asia that currently is dependent on Pakistan granting overland access to relief material meant for that country.

The opening of the crucial road link is seen as the triumph of Indian diplomacy in a country that not too long ago under the Taliban regime had become virtually inaccessible.

The two countries also decided to bolster their counter-terror cooperation and agreed to exchange information to deal with the menace.

Mukherjee Wednesday discussed with Karzai and Spanta a host of issues relating to terrorism and security cooperation.

Both countries face “same terrorism from the same source”, Spanta said. Although he did not name Pakistan, the reference was not lost on anyone.

“In our region, there are some entities who use terrorism as tool for foreign policy. This should end,” the Afghan foreign minister said.

India has pledged $1.2 billion to Afghanistan for different reconstruction projects ranging from roads and bridges to power stations and parliament in which over 2,000 Indians are involved.

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