President Ghani’s hollow threats
Two weeks ago, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani threatened Pakistan to block its transit trade with Central Asian countries via Afghan route if Islamabad did not allow India to trade with Afghanistan via Wagah border. President Ghani made these remarks during a meeting with Owen Jenkins, the UK’s special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He said Afghanistan was no more a landlocked country as several other options and transit routes were available to Afghan traders for import and export of commodities. Pakistan’s Foreign Office spokesman, Nafees Zakaria, said that Pakistan did not bar any Afghan truck, and Afghan transit trade trucks were still allowed to use the Wagah border-crossing to reach India, under the Pak-Afghan transit trade agreement. However, there was no provision to allow either Indian or Afghan trucks to use the Pakistani route to carry goods from India to Afghanistan.
President Ashraf Ghani also said: “Pakistan usually closed transit routes during the fruits season, causing millions of dollars losses to Afghan traders.” But this is travesty of the truth, as Afghanistan creates a situation which leads to stoppage of trade. Of course, Pakistan had closed its border with Afghanistan after a group of Afghan demonstrators attacked the Friendship Gate at Chaman in August 2016 and set the Pakistani flag on fire. Sources said that a large number of Afghan nationals, celebrating the 97th anniversary of their country’s independence had gathered near the Friendship Gate after marching through the streets of the Spin Boldak town across the border. They carried placards and banners inscribed with anti-Pakistan slogans. Anyhow, Pakistan had allowed the trucks carrying fruits and other items from Afghanistan after Afghan government apologized for the unfortunate incident.
UK’s envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Owen Jenkins said that situation and environment in Pakistan suggested that the return of Afghan refugees should be expedited and more refugees must return to Afghanistan during the current and next year. President Ghani said the Afghan refugees were tired of pressures and the ongoing situation in Pakistan and were willing to repatriate to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, President Ashraf Ghani is surrounded by the loyalists of former president Hamid Karzai. Despite the fact that Pakistan itself is suffering from the economic fallout of ongoing war on terror, Pakistan is the largest Muslim donor country to Afghanistan, which is reflective of Pakistan’s desire for development and peace in Afghanistan. It is a matter of record that Pakistan rendered many sacrifices when it stood by the Afghans in Afghan Jihad against the former USSR and hosted record number of over 3 million refugees.
Though the deadline for repatriation of Afghan refugees was 31st December 2015, Afghan government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had requested Pakistan to review its December 31, 2015 deadline for the repatriation of Afghan refugees from the country. On their request, it has been once again extended up to 30th June 2017. It is more than three and a half decades now that Afghan refugees are living in Pakistan, and among them there are criminals who are responsible for deteriorating law and order situation of the country. There is a widespread perception that they have become a security risk, as it is difficult to separate extremist elements who live in the disguise of refugees. It is high time that they are sent back, as nation wants them to leave the country immediately; however under pressure from international community extensions are being given.
India’s objective to develop the strategically located Chabahar port of Iran along with road and rail network from Iran to Afghanistan is meant to counter China and Pakistan’s alliance in South West Asia. India is to invest $500 million on development of the Chabahar port, but the bigger questions of feasibility of logistical linkages still remain unanswered. Like Pakistan and India, Iran too is competing for the Afghan market, its share in reconstruction opportunities and outreach to Central Asia. However, the road network and rail link vital to connect Chabahar to Central Asian states are capital intensive and time-consuming projects. The question is whether India will come forward in a big way like China has done in case of CPEC? Secondly, whether Chahbahar would compete with Gwadar, as the distances from Chabahar to Kabul and Central Asian Republics would entail prohibitive costs?
The port of Gwadar will commence full operations by the end of 2016. Logistics will be transformed by CPEC as container ships that today have to make nearly 13,000 km sea voyage from Tianjin to the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Malacca and around India can be replaced by cheaper container trucks that make a mere 2,000 km road journey from Kashgar to Gwadar. The question is whether India would gain much from Chabahar port and whether its efforts to bypass Gwadar would pay dividends? In fact, the cost and freight of the shipments from India to Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian states would be a lot more than the shipments from Gwadar to the above destinations. Thus, ultimately cost effectiveness will decide about the success of the ports, as distance from Mumbai to Chabahar is 930 nautical miles (1800 kilometer), and from Chabahar to Kabul is 1851kilometer.
On the other hand, distance from Gwadar to Kabul is 450 kilometer. One can see the advantages of trading from Gwadar port. It has to be mentioned that even Hamid Karzai had not threatened Pakistan the way President Ashraf Ghani has done on the issue of transit trade. In 2014, then Afghan President Hamid Karzai had expressed hope that Pakistan would provide access for a key transit route for trade between India and his land-locked country, according to a report carried by the Press Trust of India. “Trade has to happen if it wants to establish prosperity in the region and keep it free of conflict. I hope Pakistan will soon give the transit route to India. the news agency quoted then Afghan president Karzai having said. “Trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Pakistan and India, and trade between the three countries is an essential element for the progress and stability of the countries.”