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EFSAS Commentary

Indian humanitarian aid to Afghanistan via Pakistan is a welcome development that benefits all three countries


On a day that Russia has begun its invasion of Ukraine, causing much uncertainty and gloom all over the world, it is, perhaps, an apt thought to attempt to switch the focus to a more positive development in South Asia this past week that has bred some rare optimism in India – Pakistan ties. As welcome as this optimism is in its own right, for the people of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan who are in the midst of a humanitarian crisis of such serious proportions that Antonio Guterres, the United Nations Secretary-General (UNSG), was constrained to warn that millions of Afghans were on the “verge of death”, the arrival of the first consignment of Indian wheat in the country would be a relief. The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) has assessed that about 23 million Afghans face acute food insecurity and 9 million are on the brink of starvation. For India and Pakistan, that they could put their historical and considerable differences aside and cooperate, even if only to respond to the plight of the suffering Afghans, does lend a glimmer of hope for the future.

India had initially sent a proposal to Pakistan on 7 October last year to send 50,000 tonnes of wheat and life-saving medicines to the people of Afghanistan via Pakistani soil, to which it received a positive response from Islamabad on 24 November. This was followed by several weeks of discussions to work out the modalities of the transit. Pakistan initially wanted the transportation of the aid to Kabul in Pakistani trucks provided by the National Logistics Cell, a trucking operation affiliated to the Pakistan Army, under the banner of the UN. India, however, proposed that the grain be shipped to Afghanistan either in Indian or Afghan trucks. The two sides eventually agreed that the wheat would be carried by Afghan trucks and a list of Afghan contractors would be shared with Pakistan. Pakistan’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Fawad Chaudhary said the trucks from Afghanistan would travel through Pakistan to Atari in India, where the wheat would be unloaded from Indian trucks and loaded onto Afghan vehicles. These Afghan trucks would then cross back into Pakistani territory. After security checks at Wagah in Pakistan, they would be allowed to proceed towards the Torkham crossing with Afghanistan. Chaudhary added, “We want all countries to help Afghanistan. We welcome the Indian gesture of sending this humanitarian assistance”. Pakistan, in recent months, has also sent food and medicine to Afghanistan.

This agreement came soon after a pact was signed between India and the WFP in Rome on 12 February to supply food grain to Afghanistan as a humanitarian gesture. In a tweet, the WFP called it a “landmark” agreement and thanked India for the “generous contribution of wheat in support of the people of Afghanistan facing severe food shortages”. As per the agreement, the WFP would take charge of the wheat convoys when they reached Afghanistan. The wheat would eventually be divided into five batches of 10,000 metric tonnes each, to be distributed across the country on approximately 200 trucks run by the WFP. The WFP runs its own logistics network inside Afghanistan, partnering with civil society groups, and has launched a global campaign for enough food and aid for the Afghan population facing malnutrition. Bishow Parajuli, WFP’s India Country Director, clarified that the WFP would provide the humanitarian aid “directly into the hands” of those that need it, without any interference from the Taliban. India has repeatedly emphasized that any assistance must be distributed in a non-discriminatory manner. Parajuli added, “The task before us is enormous, and every bit counts. India’s commitment for 50,000 MT is extremely important, especially in times of the pandemic, and we remain hopeful that the Indian government will extend its generosity for even more grain stocks when possible”.

Following up on these agreements, India on 22 February sent the first consignment of the 50,000 tons of wheat that it had pledged to give Afghanistan. A convoy of 41 Afghan trucks loaded with about 2,000 tons of wheat and bearing banners that read “A gift from the people of India to the people of Afghanistan” was waved off by Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla at the Attari-Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan. The wheat travelled through Pakistan to reach Jalalabad in Afghanistan, where it was handed over to the WFP. Shringla said that India will fulfill its commitment to supply the full 50,000 tons of wheat within two to three months. In a tweet, Afghanistan’s Karzai administration-appointed Ambassador to India, Farid Mamundzay, who was present at the ceremony when the trucks rolled out of India, said, “I thank the Indian government for the generosity displayed at a time when more than 20 million Afghans are facing crisis or the worse levels of food insecurity in more than three decades”. He added that the wheat committed by India was “one of the largest food contributions done by any country in this difficult hour”.

Any observer of South Asia would be aware of how implausible the prospect of Indian wheat being transported down Pakistani highways would have seemed just a few months ago. Pakistan had suspended all Indian transit trade to Afghanistan since 2019, and there was little sign of any thaw in the near-frozen relations between the two countries. That said, the agreement to transport Indian humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan through Pakistan had inherent benefits for all three countries involved. For Afghanistan, the obvious primary aim of ensuring food for its starving many would be achieved in part, even if a lot more similar gestures from other countries would be required to deal with the broader desperate situation. The Taliban regime, which was inimical towards India in its previous stint in power in the 1990s, has stated this time around that it wants good relations with it. The Indian gesture of prioritizing the needs of the Afghan people, just as it had done under successive earlier Afghan regimes, would nudge the Taliban further in this direction. Given the problems that the Taliban regime has been having with Pakistan, as was touched upon in the Commentary of 11-02-2022, the Taliban may actually be looking to build sturdier bridges with India to counter Pakistani overbearance.

India has been a consistent and generous donor to the cause of the Afghan people in many spheres over the past two decades. The work done by Indian health workers in medical camps in remote parts of Afghanistan, braving the constant threat of Taliban attacks, is a case in point. The large development projects undertaken for the benefit of Afghans and the hundreds of scholarships provided to Afghan students to study in India are some other examples. India, consequently, enjoys considerable respect and admiration in the eyes of Afghans, which it would like to retain. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) reflected this desire when it said in a recent statement that “it remains committed to its special relationship with the people of Afghanistan”. That the Indian government put aside its differences with Pakistan and requested it for transit just so as to be able to reach the Afghan people in their time of grave need would not be lost of Afghans. Nor are the Afghan people likely to forget that New Delhi has already sent five relief consignments consisting of half a million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, essential medicines, and winter clothing by air over the past two months.

While India has not recognized the Taliban regime and is among the major countries that has interacted the least with it, the possibility that in an era of decreasing Western significance and heft the Taliban may eventually become a mainstreamed entity in Afghan politics that needs perforce to be engaged with would not be lost on it. After the Taliban takeover in August last year, India, despite its huge contributions to Afghanistan, found itself largely sidelined. That was not a healthy situation for a major regional power to be in. Some political analysts, therefore, see the humanitarian aid as a diplomatic route for India to build some links with the Taliban, which has welcomed India’s help. Taliban spokesman and UN Ambassador-designate, Suhail Shaheen, said that “It is a positive step. This humanitarian assistance is for the people of Afghanistan for which we are grateful to the government of India. We also thank the government of Pakistan for reaching an agreement with India and providing facilities for transportation of the wheat to Afghanistan”.

Pakistan’s decision to open up its territory for a worthy cause is creditable, and it would have helped the country shed, even if just a wee bit, of the disrepute that it has earned itself in recent times. Prime Minister Imran Khan has been seeking engagement with India for quite some time, and successful collaboration on a humanitarian cause would only encourage the idea that the two countries can indeed work together if the intent is honest. The holding of the ceasefire agreement along the Line of Control (LoC) for exactly a year since 25 February 2021 also indicates the same.

Pakistan has been in economic strife for quite a while, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in a recent report titled ‘Pakistan’s Economy and Trade in the Age of Global Value Chains’ noted that the country has one of the lowest trade-to-GDP ratios in the world of 30%. The ADB opined that Pakistan was a relatively large country, but its trade openness remained remarkably low. Further, it does not have a significant trading relationship with its neighbours in South Asia. The ADB felt that a viable strategy that Pakistan could adopt to boost its growth is to further open its economy to trade.

Calls for Pakistan to resume trade with India have started coming in from within its government. The Pakistani daily Dawn reported on 21 February that PM Imran Khan’s Adviser on Commerce, Textile, Industry and Production, and Investment Abdul Razak Dawood had advocated trade with India as the need of the hour, and said that it would benefit both countries. He said, “As far as the ministry of commerce is concerned, its position is to do trade with India. And my stance is that we should do trade with India and it should be opened now. Trade with India is very beneficial to all, especially Pakistan. And I support it”. Endorsing his views, Imran Khan drew attention to the reality that Pakistan’s regional trading options were already limited, with Iran, its southwestern neighbour, under US sanctions and Afghanistan, to the west, involved in decades of war.

Dawn felt that it was encouraging to see Pakistani government officials and businessmen supporting improvement in bilateral relations and regional trade in South Asia, which is one of the least economically integrated regions in the world. It described regional trade as being among the most crucial tools for economic progress and increased competitiveness. As per a 2018 World Bank report, India and Pakistan “collectively represented 88% of the regional GDP, but the trade between them was valued at a little over $2 billion”. This could be as high as $37 billion. Dawn also wondered, “Why can’t South Asian States… collectively work for the future of their two billion citizens? This will not happen overnight but the revival of trade across Wagah could be a first step”.

Leading Pakistani businessman and chairman of the Nishat Group Mian Muhammad Mansha went a step further and claimed that backchannels were working to improve ties between India and Pakistan, and that they will hopefully yield positive results soon. He said, “If things improve between the two neighbours, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi could visit Pakistan in a month”. Muhammad Mansha also spoke strongly in favour of resumption of bilateral trade. He averred, “If the economy does not improve, the country may face disastrous consequences. Pakistan should improve trade relations with India and take a regional approach to economic development. Europe fought two great wars, but ultimately settled for peace and regional development. There is no permanent enmity”.

It would be a welcome development if backchannels are, indeed, at an advanced stage in their quest to improve relations between India and Pakistan, and that process would certainly draw some confidence and inspiration if the collaboration on the aid consignments for Afghanistan plays out well.