Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Eyeing Pak-Afghan Transit Trade by Momin Iftikhar

The signing of a Pak-Afghan MoU, on 6 May 2009, on the sidelines of the tri-lateral discussions involving Pakistan, Afghanistan and US has been viewed as a significant development in reshaping the contours of an existing transit trade agreement, signed in 1965 to provide transit to Afghan trade through Pakistan.

The MoU binds the two governments to finalize a trade agreement by the end of the year; the existing arrangements having been overtaken by the exigencies of the changing geo-strategic environments in the Region. It was however the doctored jubilation in the Indian media that led one to believe that perhaps the MoU had provided a much awaited breakthrough to India in securing a transit trade route through Pakistan to Afghanistan. It was the clarification from the Pakistan Foreign Office that put a check to such vested speculations. “As far as our engagement with India in the context of transit route for Afghanistan is concerned, it is a separate issue all together. It will be discussed with India bilaterally and has nothing to do with MoU,” said Foreign Office Spokesman Abdul Basit. The spokesman clarified the Nation’s stance by saying that progress in ties with New Delhi was not possible without resolution of all disputes, including Jammu and Kashmir. Sensing an opportunity to push a foot in the door, India has redoubled its efforts in securing the Wagah-Khyber transit route to Afghanistan – a lingering ambition ever since independence - notwithstanding the fact that Pakistan and Afghanistan are already engaged in an exercise to revise the agreement as an ongoing process and signing of the MoU is nothing out of the blue. The aspect was adequately underscored by Mr. Basit. “This is not something new and is going on because Afghanistan at one stage proposed to us that we need to revise this agreement. So this is a continuation of the process,” he clarified. With the emergence of Central Asian Republics the dependence of Afghanistan and Pakistan on both ways transit facilities through their respective homelands has acquired greater importance that is mutually intertwined in the manner of a conjoined twin. Afghanistan is dependent on Pakistan for providing a major and shortest access to a seaport. In its turn Afghanistan, due to its strategic location has the potential to provide Pakistan transit access to the Central Asian States and vice versa. Presently the transit through Pakistan is governed by the 1965 Afghan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA) which specifies the port, route, transport modes and customs transit procedures. But the status quo already stands shaken by the winds of change. Over the last forty three years the economic, infrastructural and geo-political conditions in the Region have transformed to say the least. Consequently the two countries are already engaged in renegotiating ATTA, not only with regard to arranging a transit arrangement for Afghanistan to reach the Arabian Sea but also define the terms for Pakistan to secure routes to the Central Asian Republics through Afghanistan. The MoU signed in Washington is a step in formalizing the ongoing process; a work in progress. India, without sharing a border with Afghanistan is obsessed with gaining a transit route to Afghanistan and thence on to the Central Asian States. The transit route through Pakistan has remained an enduring dream; but obviously this has not dissuaded her from exploring other options. A major manifestation of her ambitions was on display when President Karzai and the Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee inaugurated the 220 KM link-road Delaram (Nimroz Province Afghanistan) – Zaranj (on Iranian border); a lion’s share of the $1.1 billion construction costs having been footed by India . This road effectively links Afghanistan’s arterial Herat-Kabul-Kandahar ring road with the Iranian port of Chahbahar, thus opening up Afghanistan and the Central Asian States to a transit route from Iran. It is worth noting that India has already concluded transit agreements with Iran, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan and the Chahbahar link up affected in Afghanistan will help her speed up her flow of men and materials in the Region. The opening up of an alternative route has only marginally depreciated the importance of the transit route through Pakistan. The Iranian route covers a distance of more than 3500 Km, whereas the Torkhum Route involves 2700 KM and given the expenses involved, the commercial viability of the Iranian route will remain at a marked handicap. Aware of the inherent disadvantages and making a determined effort to offset the same, the Iranian Government has allowed Afghan exporters a 90% discount on port fees, a 50% discount on warehouse charges and permitting Afghan vehicles full transit rights on the Iranian road system. Notwithstanding the acquisition of an alternative transit route into Afghanistan, the Indian obsession still remains fixated in finding a transit corridor to Afghanistan through Pakistani territory. Such an Indian desire, incidentally, is not restricted to Pakistan alone. Finding such a transit swath through Bangladesh to gain access to its restive North Eastern States has remained a persistent Indian ambition – something that constituted a strategic goal of India’s seeking the dismemberment of East Pakistan and a desire that has largely remained unfulfilled so far. In Nepal she doesn’t need a corridor since through a highly manipulative treaty of friendship and cooperation the Indo-Nepal border is open and is extensively used to keep the Government in Nepal on its knees and always looking over its shoulders to evade Indian coercion. For the Indian Government to think that it can acquire the right of transit trade to Afghanistan passing through Pakistan,is an idea which doesn’t stand much chance, given the state of bilateral relations obtaining at the moment. India’s presence in Afghanistan has already become a major source of instability and subversion in FATA, NWFP Province and Baluchistan. She is flooding these areas with arms and funds for the forces of disruption that are buffeting Pakistan with an unprecedented fury. The Composite Dialogue Process, which has an investment of five years of sustained negotiations, has all but come to a stand still. The perils of opening up Wagah – Khyber transit route to India for access into Afghanistan, under the circumstances, is fraught with unbearable costs. Much needs to be done before the Indian ambitions of a transit route to Afghanistan through Pakistan’s hinterland can translate into reality.

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