Indian wheat poised to enter Afghanistan: Why this is a milestone moment in the history of bilateral ties

As the first shipment of Indian wheat reaches Iran's Chabahar Port and remains poised to enter its destination in Afghanistan, the development marks an important milestone in the history of India and Afghanistan's bilateral relationship.

It's not just a cargo of 130,000 tonnes of cereal aimed at addressing the nutrition needs of a war-torn country, but the endearing symbol of a civilisational tie based on historical, political, social and cultural mores that has survived despite a thousand obstacles and flourished despite the machinations of an obtuse and paranoid common neighbour.

 Indian wheat poised to enter Afghanistan: Why this is a milestone moment in the history of bilateral ties

File image of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani. Reuters

An insecure Pakistan has repeatedly blocked Indian wheat from reaching land-locked Afghanistan. It did so in 2002, denying food to hungry Afghan schoolchildren despite a deal brokered by the World Food Programme (WFP) under the excuse that the wheat was "infected".

WFP and India then came up with the idea of turning the wheat into energy-fortified biscuits. As C Raja Mohan had reported in The Hindu in 2003, three Indian bakeries were pressed into service who made "crunchy, golden biscuits" out of the wheat, and these were shipped from Kandla Port in Gujarat to Bandar Abbas in Iran. The biscuits eventually reached four Afghan cities via a circuitous route and provided "a big boost to child nutrition and school attendance in Afghanistan."

Pakistan's insecurity was on display again last year when it denied overland transit to 1.75 lakh tonnes of Indian wheat and medicines meant for drought-hit Afghanistan, exacerbating food crisis in a nation hit by malnutrition and forcing New Delhi to move the WTO. More than 50 percent Afghan children suffer from chronic or acute malnutrition, according to the UNICEF, and nearly one-third Afghan citizens are food-insecure, as New Indian Express notes in a report.

From a seasonal ailment, Pakistan's insecurity may worsen to a chronic disease with two simultaneous churns. The land link is still elusive but connectivity is improving between India and Afghanistan with the introduction of an air corridor in June and the slow but steady development of Chabahar Port.

"Many (Afghan) investors will try to do business through Chabahar once the process kicks off. This will help investors send their goods to India and import goods through a closer route," Atiqullah Nasrat, CEO of Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries was quoted, as saying in Afghanistan-based TOLO news.

The second stimulus has come from the US, which sees more scope for Indian intervention in the development of Afghanistan. In his expansion of South Asia and Afghanistan policy, US president Donald Trump was emphatic that in the area of economic assistance and development, India could "do more".

This theme was carried through by US secretary of state Rex Tillerson, who in a policy-articulating address acknowledged "India’s important role is in providing development assistance to Afghanistan as they move forward to create better economic conditions that provide for the needs of a very diverse ethnic group of people."

Improved connectivity and US policy shift — putting more pressure on Pakistan by asking India to do more — have created space for deepening an already profound bilateral relationship, the signs of which were evident during Afghanistan president Ashraf Ghani's recent visit to India.

Ghani, who started his tenure by courting Pakistan and tried to cosy up to military chiefs in the hope that Rawalpindi will restrict Taliban's manoeuvrability in the region, seems to have undergone a late, inevitable epiphany that Pakistan will never rein in or stop supporting its strategic terror assets.

This disillusionment — and also Trump's decision to send more US boots on ground — has encouraged Ghani to threaten Pakistan that it will block the passing of China Pakistan Economic Corridor and its access to central Asia if Islamabad refuses to give transit access through Wagah and Attari for trade with India.

Addressing a think tank group during his India trip, the Afghanistan president's distrust of Pakistan was evident as he blamed it for nurturing and replenishing the Taliban back into life and asked Islamabad to end its support of terror groups.

In the cyclical nature of Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship, the recent 'away tilt' creates more space for India to tap the new dynamic and expand its presence in Afghanistan. India's assistance programme in the war-torn country already runs long and deep. It could become more diverse.

Under the framework of "New Development Partnership" — that takes forward India's 16-year-long economic and capacity-building assistance programme — India will keep providing aid in the "fields of health, agriculture, drinking water supply, education, renewable energy, infrastructure development, skill development and capacity building" and will "further contribute to Afghanistan's reconstruction, economic development and effective governance," as MEA stated in a release.

Crucially, the support will also include the partnership in defence and security and will involve the training of Afghan army and police forces. As opposed to Pakistan's efforts to tie Afghanistan aid programme to an effort to colonise the nation, India's historic emphasis has been on an "Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled" peace and development process. This difference in philosophy, and also India's deep commitment, has endeared Afghans towards India.

On the occasion of India's 70th Independence Day, Amrullah Saleh, former chief of Afghan intelligence and now the founder of a political party wrote in The Indian Express, "For us Afghans, India is not only a country and an ancient civilization but a contemporary brand too. An iconic brand representing diversity, tolerance, culture, humility, deep knowledge amid humility and a sincere friend."

India could expand more its presence in Afghanistan by investing in the telecommunications sector as Michael Kugelman of The Wilson Centre has suggested or expand its arms sales. Ghani had indicated that he would "welcome" more Mi35 helicopters.

Rabindranath Tagore's Kabuliwala narrated the immortal tale of an Afghan moneylender finding a reflection of his estranged daughter in a little girl in the bylanes of Kolkata. That spirit endures.

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Updated Date: Oct 27, 2017 22:35:17 IST