According to a report, Afghanistan shifted give or take 80% of its cargo traffic from Pakistan to Chabahar ports and Iran’s Bandar Abbas soon after the former was inaugurated. The move over was partially due to the new tariff imposed by Islamabad.
With the official opening of Chahbahar more business is expected to shift. Expectations and analysis is of a mammoth US$5 billion worth of Afghan trade to go through Chahbahar.
Interestingly on January 7th 2019, news broke of India to deliver Mi-25 gunship helicopters to the Afghan Air Force procured from Belarus. Two will be delivered in March, with others following in latter consignments.
Both India and Iran are driven by economic interests. Iran is interested in a free trade zone near Gwadar – to accelerate its economic development that had been held back by many years of sanctions it was blanketed under. Further, Saudi Arabia and Iran are rivals in the market of energy products. Interestingly, the Gulf Cooperation Council states and Saudi Arabia supply a good percentage of Oil India imports while Qatar is their biggest importer of natural gas.
India on the other hand is rearing its head vying to be a regional leader and without doubt, the development of Chabahar will lead to a boost in her regional status. Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme writes, “India, however, does not appear to seek to only import Iranian oil; it wishes to invest in Iranian oil and gas fields, thus further securing its energy from that country.”(April 26, 2016) Chabahar, once it takes off, will offer better ingress to India into Afghanistan and Afghani markets, this will in turn lead to a stronger say with the Afghan government. This will also improve India’s chances to angle for Turkmenistan gas.
One needs to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Focusing on Tajikistan; a gas-rich country, India already has its Ayni Air Base also known as the ‘Gissar Air Base’, located 10km west of the capital of Tajikistan-Dushanbe. “Between years 2002-2010, India invested approximately $70 million in renovations, installing state-of-the-art air defense navigational facilities. The runway was further extended. This access offers immediate strategic depth in the region to India. The second place of Indian foothold is the Farkhor Air Base; a military air base located near the town of Farkhor in Tajikistan, 130 kilometers southeast of the capital Dushanbe. In 1996-97, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) started negotiations with Tajikistan to use the Farkhor Airbase to transport high-altitude military supplies to the Afghan Northern Alliance, service their helicopters and gather intelligence.” (My Op-Ed Pakistan Today: September 24, 2013)
Are targeted attacks on Baluchistan expected to increase to sabotage Gwadar? Probably yes. In 2016, Kulbhushan Yadav, a RAW agent caught in Baluchistan, and later interrogated, “revealed he had been imparting Naval fighting training to Baloch separatists in an attempt to target Pakistani ports.”(Dawn March 27, 2016) Not to forget that according to The News, “An initial budget of $300 million has been earmarked by RAW for subverting the economic corridor.” (May 11, 2015)
The net result of the developments is a scenario with only Pakistan having a weaker influence with Afghanistan. Theoretically, though one would support a ‘hands off policy’ by Pakistan so far as Afghanistan is concerned, practically to have it replaced by Indian increased influence in light of the porous border shared by Pakistan and Afghanistan, Zarb-e-Azab afoot and Indian involvement in Baluchistan poses a dangerous situation for Pakistan. It puts Pakistan’s policy to severe test.
Without becoming India-centric, Pakistan needs to devise its policies in light of the new ground realities. This means ensuring security and curbing a lawlessness situation, fencing the Gwadar area, providing all facilities to investors in Gwadar project at any cost. Sweeping tax concessions for Gwadar is a wonderful step. It needs however to be implemented in letter and spirit.