Amid controversial remarks of US defence secretary-designate Chuck Hagel on India's role in Afghanistan, a top US official has termed New Delhi crucial for economic growth of the country post the withdrawal of American troops from there.
Robert Blake, assistant secretary of State
for South and Central Asia, said during a Congressional hearing that the US sees India as kind of an economic linchpin for future of Afghanistan.
Blake 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.
He noted 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.
"It very much has embraced this regional integration vision that (the former) Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton and now Secretary (John) Kerry have endorsed to open up all of these trade links, to allow for, for example, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India gas pipeline and other forms of infrastructure -- road, rail and other openings --that will link up this region in a very significant way."
"India is really at the heart of all of those efforts and is such an important partner for us," Blake said.
Blake was responding to a question from Indian American Congressman Ami Bera, who had sought to know his perspective on India's role in helping maintain stability in Afghanistan, besides efforts to strengthen the US-India relationship.
Blake's remarks assume significance in the backdrop of critical remarks by Defence Secretary-designate Chuck Hagel, who was shown in a video accusing India of "financing problems" in Afghanistan.
India, in its response, had said it did not view its engagement with Afghanistan as a "zero sum game" and New Delhi's development assistance has been deeply appreciated by the people and the Government of Afghanistan.
In her remarks, Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation said Hagel's statement is not only contrary to reality, but also goes directly against policy of the Obama Administration.
"Senior Obama officials have rightly avoided being baited by the Pakistanis into thinking that India is the source of trouble for US interests in Afghanistan," Curtis said.
"By contrast, India has been one of the largest donors to Afghanistan, assisting with its humanitarian needs, energy projects, and even the construction of the parliament building in Kabul-the most powerful symbol of the burgeoning democratic process in the country," she said.
Curtis said New Delhi strongly supports the US goal of ensuring that Afghanistan never again becomes a haven for international terrorism.
She said a Taliban victory in Afghanistan may directly impact India as the organisation is most likely to facilitate terrorist activities in the country.
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