One of the issues raised by the Afghan Delegation, led by Interim Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, which met with Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on November 12, 2021 in Islamabad, was permitting the transportation of Indian wheat via Pakistan territory (it would be pertinent to point out, that in October 2021, India had asked Pakistan for allowing the movement of trucks carrying 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan).
. The Pakistan PM is supposed to have told the delegation, that he will consider the request favourably. A tweet by the Pakistan Prime Minister’s office said:
‘The Prime Minister conveyed that in the current context Pakistan would favourably consider the request by Afghan brothers for transportation of wheat offered by India through Pakistan on exceptional basis for humanitarian purposes and as per modalities to be worked out’.
After the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, bilateral trade with India – via Pakistan – had been suspended. This had caused a huge loss to many Indian businesses. For the year 2019-2020, trade between India and Afghanistan surpassed 1.5 Billion USD.
Chabahar Port and India-Afghanistan Air Freight corridor
While Pakistan has been allowing Afghan goods to enter India through Wagah, it does not permit export of Indian goods to Afghanistan via Pakistani territory. To overcome this problem, India has been focusing on the Chabahar Port Project in Iran (the port dubbed as India’s gateway to Afghanistan and Central Asia has been used for transportation of relief consignments to Afghanistan) and had also initiated air corridors with Afghanistan (New Delhi-Kabul, Mumbai-Kabul and New Delhi-Herat)
The recent demand of Afghanistan to allow relief materials from India, underscores two points. First, the Taliban realizes the importance of economic ties with its neighbours – especially India and Iran (a lot of attention is focused on Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan, but the latter needs to have robust economic ties with other neighbours as well). In September 2021, Taliban had sent the proposal for resuming air connectivity with India. Alhaj Hameedullah Akhunzada, acting minister, Afghanistan Civil Aviation Authority had written to the Director General of Civil Aviation Arun Kumar for resumption of flights between both countries. Even before the formation of the Interim Taliban Government, Interim Deputy Foreign Minister, Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai, had said that Taliban would seek to build robust bilateral relations with India, and had categorically said that trade with India, both through air corridors and the land crossing, was important for Afghanistan. Stanekzai had also spoken in favour of regional connectivity.
Second, that while the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it accorded highest priority to its economic relations with China, it wants to balance its relations, and not be excessively dependent upon Beijing (Beijing has committed assistance to the tune of 31 Million USD to Afghanistan, and has also resumed air connectivity with Afghanistan). Taliban Spokespersons have said that they want cordial relations with all countries including the US. While humanitarian aid from the world community will help Afghanistan in dealing with the grave humanitarian crisis (according to estimates over half of Afghanistan’s population are facing food insecurity), connectivity as well as resumption of bilateral trade is essential. Apart from this, Taliban needs support of the world community for the unfreezing of the reserves of the Afghan Central Bank (the US had frozen 9.5 billion USD assets of the Afghan Central Bank). So far very few countries, with China being the most vocal, have extended support to the demand that these assets be released (the Taliban interim government will need to cultivate ties with other countries, and also reassure them that it will keep its commitments with regard to rights of minorities and women, in order to receive their support).
In conclusion, while there is a strong consensus over assisting Afghanistan in dealing with its humanitarian crisis, it remains to be seen whether countries will also resume economic linkages and connectivity, and also if they will support the demand of the Taliban interim government with regard to the assets of the Afghan Central Bank being released. It would also be interesting to see, if Pakistan actually allows relief materials from India to pass through its territory, and if it does whether such a step could pave the way for resumption of bilateral linkages between both countries which it had been snapped in August 2019. While analysts and commentators are viewing Afghanistan purely from the lens of geopolitics, it is important for the world community and Taliban to work jointly to address the country’s economic problems and prioritise the welfare of Afghan citizens.