The moment Chabahar opens, and Indian support becomes freely available, Afghanistan’s dependency on Pakistan would reduce. This would provide Afghanistan more options.
The strategic initiative displayed by India when it moved its first shipment of wheat to Afghanistan through the Chabahar port has been well established. Bypassing Pakistan has changed the narrative of the region. Simultaneously has been the opening of an air corridor between the two countries. All this, while the US increases deployment of its troops, adopts a new strategy for South Asia, seeking to end the war in Afghanistan on favourable terms, while applying pressure on Pakistan to curb support to terror groups. This movement of wheat has also put Pakistan in a quandary and has made it reassess its policies and influence in its immediate neighbourhood.
Pakistan had always blocked Indian attempts to reach out to Afghanistan through the land route, despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a recent announcement, refusing to renew the Pak-Afghan transit trade agreement, closing doors for Pakistan to trade with Central Asia through Afghanistan, solely because of this reason. Pakistan has feared that opening of the land route to India would impact its hold and presumed stranglehold over Afghanistan. Even in a recent meeting between the Pakistan army chief and the Afghan President, this issue was vociferously raised by Afghanistan, wherein the Pakistan army chief stated that India must request Pakistan for the same, which India refused.
Pakistan had always blocked Indian attempts to reach out to Afghanistan through the land route, despite Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a recent announcement, refusing to renew the Pak-Afghan transit trade agreement, closing doors for Pakistan to trade with Central Asia through Afghanistan, solely because of this reason.
The strategic advantage of India exploiting and developing the Chabahar port has been discussed in many forums. However, there is a human angle, which has remained largely unexplored. For Afghanistan, India remains a close reliable friend and a major market. Its products, which earlier took a circuitous land route, while the air corridor could move limited stocks, would now be shipped at far cheaper rates. Simultaneously, India has an avenue to be able to provide assistance, in times of disasters and calamities directly to Afghanistan, bypassing Pakistan.
Thus, respect for India in Afghanistan would be on the ascend, while that of Pakistan, solely because of its support to terror groups, on the decline. This would enhance Indian soft power, which could prove decisive, in case the new US policy proves effective and a state of near normalcy returns to the country. Clearly, the movement of the first shipment of wheat would impact hearts and minds of the local Afghan populace, as the government would proudly announce enhanced Indian aid.
This combined with Indian economic and training assistance would negate any positive steps even if attempted by Pakistan. India and Pakistan are both battling for dominancy in Afghanistan. Pakistan seeks to force it through its surrogate terror groups and India by soft power and assistance.
This development has added to existing tensions and worries within Pakistan. This was evident, as immediately post the movement of the wheat shipment, the Pakistan army chief rushed to Tehran to meet the Iranian leadership. One of his topics for discussion would be the impact of the opening of Chabahar port and if Iran could consider imposing conditions on the movement of goods and supplies to Afghanistan, through this axis.
After all, if today India could move essential commodities, it can easily move weapons and ammunition to strengthen the Afghan forces, provided it has Iranian support. Thus, if Pakistan adopts an anti-Iran approach, including supporting Saudi Arabia against it, it may permit movement of military equipment into Afghanistan, through Chabahar, thus enhancing Pakistan’s threat perceptions. Pakistan would need to be very cautious and tow a thin line, failing which it could be the loser.
The other worry for Pakistan would be reduced Afghan dependency on it. Afghanistan remains poor, landlocked with no access for its products. It had always banked on Karachi, due to which it had to remain indebted to Pakistan. Every time there was tension and attacks along the Durand Line, Pakistan simply closed the border.
The last blockade, which began early March this year, was for almost a month and adversely impacted Afghanistan, much more than it did to Pakistan. Thus, it was open to blackmail from Pakistan, which it regularly resorted to. The moment Chabahar opens, and Indian support becomes freely available, dependency on Pakistan would reduce, other than for daily normal trade. This would provide Afghanistan more options and reduce its dependency on Karachi.
This changing narrative, resulting in enhanced positive support for India, would also open doors for it to expand its footprint in the country, adding to Pakistan’s woes. The very issue over which Pakistan remains adamant would now become a reality. Further, if India were to operate Chabahar port, it would need to maintain a reasonable presence in the region. This was the same port from where Pakistan abducted Kulbhushan Jadhav, claiming him to be an agent. Indian footprints would enhance in just the very regions where Pakistan does not desire them.
The changing narrative, resulting in enhanced positive support for India, would also open doors for Afghanistan to expand its footprint in the country, adding to Pakistan’s woes.
It would also result in India exporting its own produce as raw materials in projects, which it undertakes in the country, thereby benefitting our own economy. Afghanistan would also open doors for enhancing India’s trade into Central Asia, akin to what Pakistan is presently resorting to. Enhanced trade and movement of goods through Chabahar also implies additional employment for Afghan people.
Pakistan’s desire to control Afghanistan would slowly become ineffective, and its blackmail and closing of borders would become redundant, hurting its own trade more. Pakistan’s trade with Central Asia would also reduce, while India’s would increase. Thus, respect for India and its enhanced Indian soft power will be the future in Afghanistan. Simultaneously, it would increase worry and tensions within Pakistan, as Indian footprints would be more visible, in those very regions which Islamabad fears.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).