Kabul-Delhi air cargo corridor new round of Great Game

The landmark Ariana flight, carrying 60 tonnes of asafoetida or heeng, was flagged off by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani from Kabul airport on June 19, and received in Delhi three hours later by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

Written by Jyoti Malhotra | Published:June 27, 2017 1:47 am
sushma swaraj, external affairs minister, ariana flight Sushma Swaraj waits for the landmark Ariana flight. PTI

Seven years after Pakistan refused to allow Afghan trucks carrying Indian goods to return home from the Wagah border, in spite of the July 2010 Afghanistan Pakistan Trade and Transit Agreement (APTTA), Kabul and Delhi have established an air freight corridor that will facilitate the movement of goods to each others’ markets.

The landmark Ariana flight, carrying 60 tonnes of asafoetida or heeng, was flagged off by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani from Kabul airport on June 19, and received in Delhi three hours later by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj.

Afghan heeng has especially been valued by the north Indian palate since time immemorial, but it certainly wasn’t food that both leaderships have had on their minds these past several years. Make no mistake, the air freight corridor is a political message to Pakistan and the rest of the international community, that Delhi will not abandon Kabul despite the deteriorating security situation in the country.

As trucks filled with explosives are detonated near the Indian and other Western embassies in the Afghan capital, as Pashtun leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar — once known as the “butcher of Kabul” because of the thousands of fellow Afghans he ordered killed in the civil war of the early 1990s, on the orders of the Pakistan intelligence agency, ISI — returns to the political centre-stage in Afghanistan, and as major powers like the US, Russia and China once again vie for influence in this country perched on the mountains of inner Asia, Delhi seems to have dug deep to somehow find the will to hang on in this new round of the Great Game.

Once again, the wheels of history are turning and Afghanistan, dirt poor and strife-torn, is at the centre of that circumnavigation. On June 6, a one-day conference called the Kabul Process was held in the Afghan capital, with more than 20 countries — including the US, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and India — attending the talks. But despite Ghani’s much-vaunted claim that the conference was to return to an “Afghan-owned-and-led peace process”, the truth is that it was the Americans who paved the way for the meeting.

The US is believed to have been upset by Russia’s attempt to hijack the Afghan peace initiative in April; the US felt Russia was diminishing the blood and sweat it had invested in Afghanistan for the last 16 years. As for Russia, its ambassador to NATO Alexander Gruschko announced in March that Moscow has “contact with the Taliban”; just under three decades ago, in 1989, the former Soviet Union had been forced to turn its back on Afghanistan because the Taliban and other insurgent groups like Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami had bled it so heavily.

Now Russia is trying to woo Pakistan because it wants back in with the Taliban as well as Hekmatyar, because it knows Pakistan has enormous leverage over them; Russia is extremely fearful that its underbelly will explode under Islamist pressure. The US has kept Pakistan close by for the same reasons. It made Pakistan a member of its Quadrilateral Coordination Group initiative, because it hoped Rawalpindi would deliver the Taliban to talk peace — even as it acknowledged that several terror attacks targeting Indian assets in Afghanistan had been carried out by the Haqqani Network, the hand-maiden of the ISI.

Meanwhile, Ashraf Ghani realised he needed to talk to the generals in Rawalpindi soon after he became president in 2014, to persuade them to tell the Taliban to back off. But at the Kabul Process conference, Ghani announced that Pakistan is “waging an undeclared war” on Afghanistan.

To understand why the Kabul-Delhi air freight corridor is being established at a time of growing political unrest as well as a deteriorating security situation is, first of all, to acknowledge Pakistan’s key status that no country can ignore if it wants to resolve the Afghan conundrum.

Afghan leaders believe that one of the reasons for Pakistan’s anger is India’s growing presence inside Afghanistan. Rawalpindi is clear that Delhi cannot be allowed to expand its sphere of influence, the Afghans say. That is why in 2010, the APTTA signed between Mohammed Fahim and Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, the commerce ministers of Pakistan and Afghanistan, respectively, clearly stated that Afghan goods packed in Afghan trucks could reach the Wagah border, but had to return home empty. The Pakistanis had insisted that Indian goods could be packed in those Afghan trucks.

As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looked on, the Pakistanis wrangled another favourable clause: Although Afghan trucks could not bring back Indian goods, Afghanistan would have to allow Pakistani trucks transit to the border town of Haeraten in Uzbekistan, and return home with goods from Central Asia as well as China.

Last year, Ghani revolted. As the economy faltered, he told Pakistanis he would shut access to Central Asia if Afghan trucks didn’t get the right to pick up Indian goods on their journey home. But Pakistan stood firm; worse, it shut down its borders, claiming that Afghan militants were wreaking havoc inside Pakistan. Meanwhile, the melons and pomegranates rotted in the fields, further pushing Afghan farmers into a tailspin.

The Afghan president realised it was up to him to alleviate the crisis. Last week’s 60-tonne heeng consignment in the Jumbo 747 to Delhi will be followed by fresh produce from Kandahar. Afghanistan’s Ambassador to India Shaida Abdali told The Indian Express that farmers in Mazar-i-Sharief, Herat, Jalalabad etc will soon be able to sell their produce in Indian markets. With the festival season of Dussehra and Diwali coming up, dry fruit will replace fresh fruit. From India, the planes will carry back medicines and machinery and garments.

For the next three years, the Afghan government has decided to subsidise the air cargo, at 50 cents per kilo. Afghan exporters will be charged 20 cents per kilo, the same amount it costs them to put their goods on trucks, so as to encourage air cargo traffic. Ariana has already asked for an additional three-four flights per week. The yearly subsidy is expected to be about $5 million.

Certainly, the air cargo agreement allows India to remain in this round of the Great Game, if only by the skin of its teeth. Flooding Kabul’s markets with Indian goods is one way to keep India’s name alive in an unstable region. Another way is to shake hands with a former enemy so that both sides know that bygones are bygones — which is why India’s Ambassador Manpreet Vohra went to meet Hekmatyar last month. Whether he is still a pawn of the ISI is irrelevant; fact is, Hekmatyar is an important political player and Delhi has signalled it is prepared to do business with him in these uncertain times.

No Indian can forget the game of dice that was played by Shakuni in the Mahabharata with such devastating effect — or that Shakuni hailed from Kandahar. In modern-day India, it would be good to remember that some lessons don’t change.

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