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Don’t trust Pakistan on wheat to Afghanistan; Iran option can be explored

As Pakistan may play dirty with Indian aid to Afghanistan transiting its territory, India could consider the Iran route, writes Lt Gen P. C. Katoch (Retd) for South Asia Monitor

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Wheat for Afghanistan (Photo: Business Today)

On December 3, 2021, Pakistan finally allowed India’s humanitarian aid of life-saving medicines and 50,000 tonnes of wheat for the Afghan population through its territory using Afghan trucks. India had announced this aid to Afghanistan some time back. This was reiterated at the NSA-level meet on Afghanistan in New Delhi on November 10 attended by Russia, Iran and the Central Asian Republics but which Pakistan and China did not attend despite being invited. 

Pakistan’s NSA did not attend the above meet fearing Pakistan’s generation of terrorism across its borders and meddling in Afghanistan would come up for discussion. The Pakistani military’s pathological hatred towards New Delhi is evident from its continuing proxy war on India. 

When India asked for transit of the humanitarian aid to Afghanistan through Pakistan using Indian or Afghan trucks, Pakistan first refused point blank. However, subsequently it said that the aid could be transferred to Pakistani trucks at the Wagah crossing (India-Pakistan border) and subsequently to Afghan trucks at Torkham crossing (Pakistan-Afghan border), and that India should pay for the transit through Pakistan. 

Pakistan plays games 

Pakistan would probably have not demanded transit money of relief aid to Afghanistan were it not from India. Pakistan was recently embarrassed by news that staff of its mission in Serbia had not been paid for three months, which Pakistan deflected by saying the mission website was hacked. A news report in The Nation now says that four local employees of its mission in the US have not been paid since August and one employee has left the job due to non-payment. 

The Taliban may have asked Pakistan to allow transit of Indian aid but more likely Pakistan saw an opportunity to gain something out of it, even to show India in a bad light since morality is passé when dealing with India. The transshipments (Wagah and Torkham) provide opportunity for pilferage no matter what Indian markings on the bags. Even replacing the wheat with inferior or rotten quality is feasible. Damaging the medicines by wetting the packages or breakages too is possible. 

The ‘Under UN Supervision’ bit is more applicable to distribution in Afghanistan. Otherwise for transshipment and transit how many personnel would the UN depute and for how many days? Movement of 50,000 tonnes of wheat would involve about 5,000 trucks over a month or more. 

As for transit through Pakistan, that territory is milling with ISI’s proxies – terrorists and jihadis. Weren’t container loads of goods meant for US-NATO troops in Afghanistan on sale in Karachi? How many times US-NATO logistics columns were attacked by terrorists especially closer to the Pakistan-Afghan border? Pakistan would have ready excuses like some trucks broke down and were attacked. Witness the recent torture, lynching and burning of a Sri Lankan national in Sialkot. Where were the Pakistani police in cahoots? 

Moving the aid through Pakistan in Afghan trucks still gives Pakistan the opportunity to act dirty as mentioned above. The trucks will also need proper covering to protect the wheat from rain. It is not known how many trucks Taliban would arrange – all 5,000 or some from Pakistan. If it is a mix, Pakistan will have more scope for mischief. On the other hand, if Afghan trucks only are to take the loads from Wagah and 200-300 trucks are detailed, the up and down movement would take that many more days. 

Before the movement of the relief aid has even commenced, Pakistan has activated its Indian links to demand resumption of India-Pakistan trade. Most vocal is a Congress politician from Punjab (India) who has been seen hugging the Pakistan Army chief and getting himself photographed with a Khalistani during the inauguration of the Imran Khan government. 

India should be wary

Pakistan has accelerated pumping narcotics into Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab. Opening of two-way trade facilitates bulk movement of drugs because a thorough checking of fully laden trucks moving in a convoy is not easy. A racket used in J&K earlier also was that goods going to Pakistan had overpriced vouchers and the excess money paid in Pakistan was used to support terrorism in India. 

India is reportedly mulling reopening its mission in Kabul though no decision has been taken. But reopening the mission doesn’t mean recognizing the Taliban government. Similarly, sending humanitarian relief to Afghanistan through Pakistan and reopening two-way trade are separate issues, with the latter requiring caution. 

According to the UN figures of early November, 24 million people of Afghanistan (60 percent of the population) were suffering from acute hunger; 8.7 million living in near-famine and malnourished children filling hospital wards. The aggravating winter is increasing miseries of the Afghan populace. 

Iran better option 

The Taliban leadership said in September that the operation of the Chabahar Port in Iran should continue unhindered. It would have been better and perhaps faster for India to move 50,000 tonnes of wheat by sea to Chabahar and beyond through Iranian Rail up to Khaf railhead in Iran, from where the Taliban could arrange collection using the Khaf-Herat rail link. 

Iran has invested $888.6 million in the Khaf-Herat railway project and was using it for trade with Afghanistan even before it was officially inaugurated in December 2020. No doubt this would require coordination with Iran and assistance for moving the wheat from Chabahar to the nearest railhead since the Chabahar rail link to Zaranj on the Iran-Afghan border is still under construction. But sending the aid to Afghanistan through Iran may be safer and faster, leaving Pakistan to its machinations. 

(The author is an Indian Army veteran. The views expressed are personal.) 

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