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New Delhi: India on Wednesday urged Pakistan to open up land routes to Afghanistan to spur trade and investment in the landlocked country and the region as New Delhi extended a hand of cooperation to Pakistan as well to improve bilateral economic ties.

In a speech at the “Heart of Asia" conference in Islamabad, that is being co-hosted by Pakistan and Afghanistan, Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj also offered India’s help to “work with Afghanistan to strengthen its defensive capability" to counter the challenge of terrorism as she called on Afghanistan neighbours to help the country battle the menace.

On trade with Pakistan, Swaraj said: “India is prepared to move our cooperation at a pace which Pakistan is comfortable with. But today, let us at least resolve to help Afghanistan — in the best traditions of good neighbourliness — through more effective transit arrangements."

The minister used her presence in Pakistan to remind those present of the close links that once existed between countries in the region — especially India,Pakistan and Afghanistan through the Grand Trunk road, built by an Afghan origin ruler of Delhi that connected Kolkata and Kabul.

Ties between India and Pakistan have been bedevilled by mutual distrust stemming from the more than six-decade-old dispute over Kashmir.

India and Pakistan also have their differences over Afghanistan, with Islamabad suspicious of good relations between New Delhi and Kabul, fearing an alliance between the two would be to its detriment. Pakistan would also like a friendly regime in Kabul to fall back on in case of a war with India and has been actively engaged in trying to install a Pakistan-friendly administration in Kabul — something India has been wary of.

In her comments, Swaraj noted that the Heart of Asia conference which brings together 14 member countries ie Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkey, Turkmenistan and the UAE — provided “an important platform" for countries surrounding Afghanistan and those in extended neighbourhood to promote political consultations and regional cooperation for a united, democratic, independent, strong and prosperous Afghanistan.

“India’s vision of this process is one of interlinked trade, transit, energy and communication routes, with Afghanistan as an important hub," Swaraj said, a vision similar to the one articulated by the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani who has often outlined his vision of Afghanistan as a “roundabout" that circulates the flow of trade, energy and cooperation between South and Central Asia besides to the Gulf region.

“Connectivity also lies at the heart of India’s own efforts to develop regional economic cooperation," Swaraj said.

However “the ‘Heart’ of Asia cannot function if arteries are clogged. Nothing can benefit Afghanistan more immediately than full and direct overland access to India’s markets to enable it to take advantage of the zero duty regime available to its exports to India," Swaraj said referring to a longstanding demand by India for overland access to Afghanistan through Pakistan.

“Similarly, if Afghan trucks could carry Indian products to markets in Afghanistan and Central Asia, that would be the best way to make trucking from Afghanistan cost-effective and viable, and bestow benefits to the whole region.

“India is willing to receive Afghan trucks on its territory, at Attari, and create necessary facilities for Afghan products there," she said. “We have also formally indicated our willingness to join the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement. India is also working with Afghanistan and Iran to develop trilateral transit. Participation in development of the Chahbahar Port will augment our connectivity with Afghanistan and beyond."

Pakistan and Afghanistan signed the Afghan Pakistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA) that came into force in 2011. It allows Afghan trucks to carry Afghan products to India but does not allow Afghan trucks to return with Indian products back through Pakistan to Afghanistan.

India is now looking an alternate trade route through Iran — developing its Chahbahar port to ship goods to Iran and from there use rail and road links to transport goods to Afghanistan.

In her speech, Swaraj also touched on the problem of terrorism bedevilling Afghanistan while acknowledging that democracy was taking root in the country.

“Afghanistan is threatened most by terrorism and not tribal or ethnic rivalries.

In the last few months, terrorism in Afghanistan has grown in both intensity and scope. Terrorists have made concerted efforts to capture and hold territory, reminding us that they have not changed," the Indian minister said.

Her comments came a day after the Taliban insurgent group stormed the main airport complex in Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar city on Tuesday, triggering gunfights and explosions. At least eight people were killed in the attack, an AFP report said.

Swaraj also reminded participants in the Heart of Asia conference that it was their “collective duty" to ensure that “the forces of terrorism and extremism do not find sanctuaries and safe havens in any name, form or manifestation. We, in Afghanistan’s proximity, have a particular responsibility in this regard.

An end to terrorism and extremism, and adherence to internationally accepted redlines are essential for reconciliation and lasting peace in Afghanistan," Swaraj said.

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