'India-backed varsity in former Taliban base a breakthrough'

'India-backed varsity in former Taliban base a breakthrough'

The establishment of war-torn Afghanistan's first agriculture university with India's help in the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar is a breakthrough in Indo-Afghan strategic partnership, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid has said.

"For India, a strong, prosperous and economically independent Afghanistan is a strategic priority and a key element of our Strategic Partnership Agreement," said Khurshid, who returned last night from Kandahar after inaugurating the Afghan National Agricultural Sciences and Technology University (ANASTU) in the sprawling Tarnak farm.

"We, therefore, see our participation in this Agriculture University project as an important activity of the India- Afghanistan strategic partnership," he said.

Interestingly, the Tarnak farm was al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden's main Afghan residence during much of the late 1990s. From there he oversaw al-Qaeda's plot to fly hijacked airliners into the World Trade Centre in New York and Pentagon in Washington in an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people.

Khurshid noted that India has already offered 614 agricultural scholarships for Afghan students who are presently being trained at Indian agriculture institutes. He hoped that many of those being trained in India would one day return as professors to ANASTU in which India has invested up to USD 8 million.

About 80 per cent of Afghan people depends on agriculture for livelihood. Also, nearly 60 per cent of GDP of the country is from the farm sector which still lacks modern agriculture practices.

Khurshid said Afghan President Hamid Karzai treats the agriculture university as an "extremely important legacy issue for him."

The Karzai government has transferred to the university 2,810 acres of land with irrigation facilities.

"Generally it is a very breakthrough step that we have been able to take up in Afghanistan. It is a small beginning because it is a very difficult place both in terms of connectivity and safety and communications," he said.

Khurshid is the first External Affairs Minister to visit Kandahar, the second largest city in Afghanistan, since 1999 when the then minister Jaswant Singh came with three terrorists released in exchange for the hostages of a hijacked Indian Airlines flight.

The plane was hijacked during its flight from Kathmandu to Delhi on December 24 and the crisis ended with the hostages being released on January 1, 2000 in exchange for terrorists Maulana Masood Azhar, Omar Sheikh and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar.

In his speech at the inauguration of ANASTU yesterday, Khurshid recalled that Jaswant Singh had visited the city in "very difficult, different circumstances".

"I recall that in 1999, my predecessor came to Kandahar in very difficult, very different circumstances," he said.

"So I think, all in all, it was important, critical. He (Karzai) wanted to do it before he lays down office and was very glad that I was able to come," Khurshid said.

Afghanistan is set to hold presidential election on April 5 ahead of the drawdown of US-led troops later this year.

Earlier, speaking to Indian reporters in Kandahar, Karzai said the opening of the agriculture university was a "significant" event in Afghanistan's history.

"India has taken yet one more significant step in helping Afghanistan," he said, noting that India had given aid worth USD 2 billion though it is not a traditional donor. 

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