India aims to remain relevant in 'uncertain' Afghanistan with air corridor as China plays peacemaker
The idea of the air corridor is to send a message to Pakistan, that the India-Afghanistan bond remains strong.
India and Afghanistan have established an air freight corridor as a way around Pakistan's stubborn refusal to allow transit of Indian goods through its territory. This comes at a time when the Ashraf Ghani government in Afghanistan has been pushed to the wall by Taliban and assorted Islamic State (IS) fighters are making their way into the country from their shrinking bases in Syria and Iraq. To compound the already volatile situation, Pakistan-Afghanistan ties are at their lowest ebb and China is likely to step in as peacemaker.
The freight corridor, first discussed in 2016 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Ghani, is a way for India to remain relevant in an increasingly uncertain political situation in Afghanistan. The corridor is more symbolic than pragmatic as air cargo is not the cheapest form of delivery to rake up the scales in trade. The idea is to send a message to Pakistan, that the India-Afghanistan bond remains strong and that despite the advantages of geography that Pakistan enjoys, the two countries will find a way out to enhance trade.
Ghani himself flagged off the New Delhi flight, while foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was on hand to greet the first cargo plane from Afghanistan. What's more, Ghani was quoted by the local media as saying that those creating problems for Afghanistan should know that Afghans can turn the situation around to their advantage. This was an obvious reference to Pakistan. A day earlier, an Indian cargo plane had landed in Kabul.
A Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) press release announcing the freight corridor said: "The connectivity established through the Air Freight Corridor will provide Afghanistan, a landlocked country, greater access to markets in India, and will allow Afghan businessmen to leverage India's economic growth and trade networks for its benefit. It would enable Afghan farmers quick and direct access to the Indian markets for their perishable produce.''
The question that remains, however, is what happened to Chabahar – the Iranian port from where goods were to be sent to Afghanistan through rail and road links. The idea of getting involved in Chabahar was taken by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government for precisely the same reason – to get around Pakistan's decision to not allow Indian trucks to transit through its territory. Why Chabahar continues to be in the doldrums is anybody's guess.
If the current government in Kabul cannot hold out against Taliban and the scattered Islamic State fighters making their way into Afghanistan, it will once more become a safe haven for these elements. An unstable Afghanistan is the worst nightmare for South Asia. With Kashmir already on the boil, these elements could give a fresh impetuous to militancy in the Valley.
But India is not the only country worried about Afghanistan. China and Russia are equally disturbed at Ghani's tenuous hold on his far-flung country. The fear of Islamic fundamentalism is very real for both these nations. China is concerned about its Muslim-majority Xinjiang region, while Russia worries about Chechnya.
One of the reasons why Russia is talking to Taliban and engaging with Pakistan is a desperate attempt to stabilise Afghanistan. China is working towards getting Pakistan and Afghanistan to shed their animosity. In fact, foreign minister Wang Yi is scheduled to visit Kabul shortly, though the dates have not been announced.
There is speculation that the Chinese minister may try to broker peace between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Afghan press quoted Ghani as saying: "It is the first time that China wants to be a mediator in Afghanistan's peace process and soon the Chinese foreign minister will visit Kabul. Peace with Pakistan was our demand and this must be solved between government and government." He was speaking to a group of Afghan women activists, according to the reports.
Both Kabul and Islamabad have been trading charges against each other, following recent terror attacks. The breakdown of relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan has escalated tensions in an already volatile region. If China can play a role as mediator between Kabul and Islamabad and bring down temperatures, perhaps chances of a political solution would brighten.
But, as of now, the talks with Taliban have broken down following the death of Mullah Mohammed Omar's successor in a drone attack by United States forces. The four-nation talks between Pakistan, United States, China and Afghanistan, which was convened to stop the civil war and reach a political settlement to stabilise the war-torn nation, can hardly be revived if Kabul and Islamabad relations continue to deteriorate.
China, as the all weather friend of Pakistan, is in the best position to be broker peace between the neighbours. With China sinking so much money into the one belt one road (OBOR) initiative of President Xi Jinping, a stable Afghanistan has become a major focus for Beijing.
China also has its eyes on the mineral wealth of Afghanistan, but none of this can be utilised in the absence of peace and security. China, which had in the past avoided getting involved in peacemaking efforts is now gradually changing its former reticence, perhaps to go with its new-found economic and diplomatic clout.
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