The Taliban takeover of Kabul just over a hundred days ago, leading to a hurried US and NATO pull out, resulted in the world ignoring Afghanistan. No nation has yet recognized the Taliban government imposed by Pakistan, which is dominated by the Haqqani network and side-lines the moderate Doha negotiators.
Strict conditions have been placed by the international community as prerequisites for recognition. These include an inclusive government, human rights, education for women, preventing re-emergence of terrorist groups, ban on export of drugs and permitting those who supported coalition forces to leave the country.
It is unlikely these conditions will be met in the near future. Afghan funds in US banks remain frozen. Afghanistan, which survived on global economic and humanitarian aid over the years currently faces a food crisis of unprecedented levels. The country is witnessing severe drought conditions leading to major shortages.
Currently, 60 per cent of the population is starving. The situation grows grimmer with poor medical facilities and lack of medicines. During its period of democracy, Afghanistan received humanitarian and economic aid coordinated by western nations. Recent conferences organized by neighbouring and regional countries including India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China have recognized the need to provide food aid to the country.
The western world has accepted the fact that Afghans must be helped, not the current government. European funds sanctioned for Afghan relief are impacted by restrictions imposed on Afghanistan’s banking service. Nations have sought direct aid access to the Afghan people, rather than through Kabul, due to lack of trust.
There has been no mention of recognizing or funding the Afghan government. Turkey, China and Pakistan have sent some food and medical aid. The fact remains that both Pakistan and China are currently importing food grains for their own populace and hence cannot provide the quantities needed by Afghanistan. With winter setting in, large parts of the country would be cut off making distribution of humanitarian aid difficult.
It is against this background that India announced a grant of 50,000 tonnes of wheat and medicines for the Afghan people. It sent a note verbale to Pakistan on 4 October requesting it to permit Indian trucks carrying this aid to move through its soil. Pakistan has thus far permitted Afghan products to be moved to India by road but not the reverse.
Pakistan sat on the Indian offer, neither rejecting nor approving it. During his recent visit to Islamabad, the Afghan interim foreign minister requested Imran Khan to positively consider the Indian request. It is possible that other nations would have also pushed Pakistan to accept the offer.
Last week, Pakistan accepted the Indian proposal in principle. However, modalities for transit still have to be finalized. This would take time. Simultaneously, Imran announced aid in similar quantities as India. The reality remains that as a food and drug importing country, Pakistan can never provide the announced aid. The Indian decision to approach Pakistan placed Islamabad in a Catch-22 situation.
Had it turned down the Indian proposal, Pakistan would have faced backlash not only in Afghanistan but also across the world. Globally, its calls for assisting the Afghan people would be considered fake, and its duplicity exposed. It would have been considered as a nation whose words and deeds are at a variance.
Rejecting the request of the Afghan foreign minister to permit Indian aid would have impacted relations between the two countries. Having accepted the proposal, Pakistan would need to discuss modalities of the shipment with the Indian government.
Shifting Indian grains to Pakistan-owned trucks at the border would imply Pakistan bearing the cost of trans-shipment and fuel, an amount it cannot afford. Permitting Indian trucks to move through the country would mean breaking its own rules, resulting in a U-turn, something Pakistan is already known for. Most importantly,
Pakistan would be responsible for the security of Indian convoys as they transit through the country. It would need to provide these convoys with armed escorts. Any terrorist strike on Indian vehicles would lower the global image of Pakistan and worsen Indo-Pak relations.
Within Afghanistan, the responsibility of security will be that of the Taliban, as Indian conditions state direct access to the population, not through Kabul. Coordination between the two would be Pakistan’s responsibility. In case of any untoward incident, India could also approach the ICJ (International Court of Justice) for compensation from Pakistan, embarrassing it.
Finally, the movement of aid by India would gain global media attention dwarfing Pakistan’s fake offer of similar quantities, which it can never fulfil. Within Afghanistan, the presence of Indian vehicles would boost Indian soft power, hurting Pakistan’s image. Despite all its concerns, Pakistan had no choice but to accept the Indian demand.
This is not the first time India has supplied food grains to Afghanistan. In 2017, India delivered 1.1 million tonnes of food grain to Afghanistan. These were shipped through the Chabahar port. The first shipment was 5,000 tonnes. Prime Minister Modi had then tweeted, “I congratulate Afghanistan and Iran on Indian wheat shipment being flagged off from Kandla to Afghanistan through Chabahar.” In 2020, India had pledged 75,000 tonnes of food grain to Afghanistan. These were also delivered through the Chabahar port.
During this period, the Afghan government was anti-Pakistan and hence Islamabad refused to permit any movement through its soil. Currently, it is the Haqqani led pro-Pakistan government that rules, which Pakistan cannot ignore as it considers it as a prodigal son. Further, this time it has been Pakistan requesting the global community to support Afghanistan, and not the ruling Taliban. This strategic move by India has placed Pakistan in a quandary. It has no choice but to accept the Indian offer.
Pakistan is aware that any untoward incident could damage Pakistan’s international standing. Within Afghanistan, Indian goodwill will increase. This is also the first time in history that an Indian convoy of vehicles will travel through the length of Pakistan protected by the Pakistan army and in Afghanistan by a UNSC proscribed terrorist group. For India it is a win-win situation, while for Pakistan it is a struggle to maintain its standing and reputation.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)