A stranglehold broken: Asian geopolitics shifts

India will also fund a railway line from Chabahar to Zahedan near the Afghan border.

The start of Indian wheat shipments to Afghanistan through Iran’s Chabahar port marks the beginning of a shift in Asian geopolitics. The programme to ship 130,000 metric tonnes of wheat is symbolic; the real action will emerge in the months and years ahead as New Delhi finally breaks through its strategic isolation in the Asian landmass. In 2002, when India wanted to ship wheat biscuits for malnourished children in war-torn Afghanistan, Pakistan refused to allow the shipment through its territory. The humanitarian nature of the shipment did not matter. As far as Islamabad was concerned, it was a matter of blocking India’s access to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Together with China encircling India’s east, the aim was to ensure the continuance of a strategic stranglehold on India and to prevent its access to the Asian heartland. India was forced to ship the biscuits through a long and circuitous route via Bandar Abbas port in Iran. When the biscuits arrived, welcoming ceremonies by children were held in the Afghan cities of Kabul, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad. As the Afghan children cheered, Islamabad’s generals fumed.

The next year, India pledged a million metric tonnes of wheat to feed the hungry in Afghanistan along with much-needed medicines. This shipment too was blocked by Pakistan and had to traverse the Iran route. Despite repeated Indian pleas, Pakistan steadfastly refused transit rights and to this day vehicles from India cannot cross Pakistani territory. Desperately poor Afghanistan that wishes to do business with India is effectively barred by a pusillanimous Pakistan. Afghan trucks carrying produce to India must return empty, as per Pakistani rules. Even humanitarian aid is not allowed. Of late, fruit from the abundant orchards of Kandahar are being airlifted to eager markets in north India. But even the weekly 40 tonnes of fruit coming in amounts to a mere trickle; much of the produce rots in the groves of southern Afghanistan. The sheer small-mindedness of Islamabad continues to exacerbate poverty and hunger in Afghanistan, even as Pakistan-sponsored insurgents ravage that country, routinely killing thousands every year. New Delhi might be a notorious laggard, but it is also wilful. Once it decided that the stranglehold had to be broken, it lurched into motion. The shortest way out was through Iran.

As early as in 2003, India expressed a desire to help expand the Shahid Behes-hti port, one of the two ports in Iran’s Chabahar. American sanctions and Indian prevarication prevented execution. There was also the question of cost and the building of road and rail networks to the Afghan border and beyond. The Chabahar project got a boost following the lifting of US sanctions on Iran and in May 2016, Mr Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to travel to Iran in 15 years. He along with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani signed a trilateral agreement to develop Chabahar port and its associated access routes into Afghanistan. India committed $500 million for the project while Iran agreed to spend $125 million for starters. Under the agreement, India would develop one of the berths at Shahid Beheshti port, and reconstruct a container handling facility there.

India will also fund a railway line from Chabahar to Zahedan near the Afghan border. The Indian state-owned company Ircon is executing the rail project, for which steel tracks have been shipped since July last year. A key piece of the puzzle, the internal connecting link within Afgha-nistan, is already in place. This is the 218-km Zaranj-Delaram highway, which was completed by India’s Border Roads Organisation in 2009 at a cost of Rs 680 cores. Altogether 339 BRO engineers, an unknown number of Indian contract workers and hundreds of Afghans took three years to complete the project. The highway connects Iran’s Chabahar to Afghanistan’s ring road that goes around the country. To ensure the long-term health of the Chabahar route, New Delhi needs to further consolidate its ties to Tehran. US sanctions were a dampener but India did not altogether disengage from Iran, although it did backtrack in some areas.

The global strategic climate is fast changing and if India articulates its strategic interests in lucid and emphatic terms, the world will listen. The United States, which has been traditionally hell-bent on denying India a role in West Asia, would be more amenable and not entirely hostage to a Pakistan-centric grand strategy.
Indications of a change in the US thinking are evident in a few recent pronouncements. US President Donald Trump, while unveiling his Afghan policy recently, had stressed that India not only had a role in Afghanistan’s economic development but could do more. In an unrelated tweet, President Trump has also hinted that Washington would not oppose those European countries wishing to trade with Iran. US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, during a recent India visit, suggested that Washington did not aim “to interfere with legitimate business activities (in Iran) that are going on with other businesses, whether they be from Europe (or) India”. The strategic implications of the Chabahar opening for India go beyond Afghanistan. The development of another railway line from Chabahar to Mashhad in northern Iran and from there to the Caspian Sea, Central Asia and eventually to Europe will provide India complete land access to the Eurasian landmass. This would be the beginning of an alternative network to the Chinese-dominated Belt and Road Initiative. Significantly, the Chinese-built port of Gwadar in Pakistan is just around 100 km to the east of Chabahar. The opening up of the Chabahar route is also a testimony to the efforts of hundreds of Indian and Afghan workers who braved great odds and daily insecurity to lay the Delaram-Zaranj highway, running through miles and miles of pitiless desert. Six Indians and 129 Afghans were gunned down by the Taliban during its construction. Chabahar proves that their sacrifice was not in vain.

( Source : Columnist )
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