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Dam completion signifies growing Indian ‘influence’ in Afghanistan – New Delhi poured more than $1 billion into Kabul

An Afghan guard of honour stands under a poster bearing the images of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left), and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani ahead of the inauguration of the Salma Hydroelectric Dam in Herat on June 4, 2016. (AFP)
An Afghan guard of honour stands under a poster bearing the images of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left), and Afghan president Ashraf Ghani ahead of the inauguration of the Salma Hydroelectric Dam in Herat on June 4, 2016. (AFP)

KABUL, June 4, (Agencies): India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Afghanistan on Saturday to mark the completion of a nearly $300 million hydroelectric dam project, the latest symbol of Indian investment in its South Asian neighbour. The dam, originally built in western Herat province in 1976 before being damaged during the civil wars of the 1990s, was rebuilt by some 1,500 Indian and Afghan engineers, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

“It is symbol of our friendship and would usher in hope, light up homes, nourish the fertile fields of Herat and bring prosperity to the people of the region,” Modi said in a social media post as he departed for Afghanistan, the first stop on a five-country trip.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has nurtured closer ties with India in the past year as relations with Pakistan have deteriorated in the face of continued insurgent attacks and border tensions. Afghanistan has walked a fine line as it accepts Indian aid, with Pakistan historically wary of any Indian influence in Afghanistan. “Salma Dam is another big step in deepening and broadening the relationship between Afghanistan and India,”

Ghani said in a post on Twitter. At more than 100 metres (330 feet) high and 540 metres (1,770 feet) wide, the dam is designed to generate 42 megawatts of power and help irrigate 75,000 hectares of land, according to Modi. India has poured more than $1 billion into Afghanistan reconstruction projects and humanitarian aid, making it one of the largest donors to the war-torn country. A new national assembly building in Kabul and major power line and road construction have been among the main projects funded by India.

New Delhi, the fifth largest bilateral donor in Afghanistan, has been a key supporter of Kabul’s post-Taleban government, a stance that has led analysts to point to the threat of a “proxy war” in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani government recently admitted, after years of official denial, that the Taleban leadership enjoys safe haven inside the country. Pakistan — the historic backer of the Taleban — has long been accused of supporting the insurgents in Afghanistan, especially with attacks on Indian targets in the country.

In December, Modi inaugurated Afghanistan’s new parliament complex in Kabul, built by India at an estimated cost of $90 million. A few days after his visit militants launched a 25-hour gun and bomb siege near the Indian consulate in Afghanistan’s Mazar-i-Sharif city. And in March, Taleban militants fired a barrage of rockets at the parliament complex. But diplomatic relations between India and Afghanistan have grown despite those attacks.

The two countries recently signed a three-way transit agreement with Iran to develop its southern port of Chabahar, as Modi visited Tehran last month. The deal, bypassing Pakistan to connect Iran, India, and Afghanistan to central Asia, would boost economic growth in the region, Modi said at the time.

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