India-Afghanistan trade through Pakistan

Published: March 13, 2016


PHOTO: FILE The writer has served as ambassador to Afghanistan and is a former interior secretary

Pakistan-Afghanistan relations are multi-dimensional, encompassing political, economic, cultural and people-to-people ties. Because of many unresolved issues, the relationship has been, for the most part, a roller coaster ride. Seldom have the two countries been able to realise and profit from the enormous latent potential of bilateral ties that could have a substantive impact on the lives of their rank and file. It is mind-boggling how, living in such close proximity and sharing such deep historic bonds of affinity, Islamabad and Kabul have failed to develop a better understanding of the perceptions, fears and suspicions in each country that impinge on the formulation of policy affecting their mutual ties.

A few months ago, the adviser to Pakistan’s prime minister, while on a visit to the United States, asserted that Pakistan will not accept a Taliban government in Afghanistan. The statement was denounced, not by the Taliban but by the presidential spokesman in Kabul who emphasised that it is not Pakistan but the people of Afghanistan who have the right to choose the type of government and people who would lead such a government. In other words, Afghans would not tolerate any covert interference, even if such intervention would attempt to weaken the government’s enemies.

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Such a lack of comprehension for Afghan sensitivities has been the fatal hallmark of the formulation of Pakistan’s thinking on issues affecting its relations with its western neighbour. Another area where this lack of concern for Afghanistan’s sovereignty is manifested is the naive attempts by Islamabad to guide Kabul’s policy in its relations with India.

This India-centric approach is fundamentally a negativistic concept that seeks to restrict India’s role in Afghanistan assuming that by so doing, it (Islamabad) would create a hegemonic or an exclusive strategic space for itself that will enhance Pakistan’s geo-political and economic interests.

There are two important points to be noted in this theory. One, such an attitude or policy has not worked. Despite Pakistan’s many overtures and deep contacts with Kabul, the bilateral Afghan-India relations have continued to grow. India has made an investment worth $2 billion in Afghanistan, becoming the 4th biggest donor to its rehabilitation. More importantly, India is viewed by most Afghans as a friend and ally.

Two, the policy tends to alienate Afghans more than Indians because they lose vast opportunities of easy, direct trade with India via Pakistan’s land route.

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Denying the use of the land route for trade between Afghanistan and India has been an inexplicably bad preposition. It has caused immense and deep resentment, not only in the ruling circles but also amongst the population of Afghanistan — a resentment that borders on hostility. As a matter of fact, allowing the use of the land route for transit goods between India and Afghanistan would have been a tremendous and, perhaps, decisive factor that could have opened possibilities for more extensive contacts in other areas. The Pakistani transport sector could have directly benefited from the transit trade. Pakistan and India could then begin to take each other into confidence with regard to their roles in Afghanistan, which would not necessarily be mutually exclusive. Trade brings people together like no other activity.

And what has Pakistan gained as a consequence of the denial of the Wagah-Torkham route to both India and Afghanistan? Nothing, except the ire of the Afghans and a deepening level of distrust with India.

Persisting with policies that bring little comfort and so much misery is beyond one’s comprehension. Those who would justify such an approach on grounds of ‘reciprocity’ for what India is presumed to be doing in Balochistan against Pakistan’s national interests, need to think again. India’s alleged interference in Balochistan or Pakistan’s in India is a longstanding issue that relates to the broader problem of the overall relations between the two South Asian neighbours. That problem would not go away soon. But in this case, it’s more a matter of our relations with Afghanistan.

Good relations with Afghanistan are an indispensable ingredient of our foreign policy. At stake is not only the stability and security of our 2,200-kilometre-long border, but also trade with Central Asia, benefiting from Afghanistan’s vast, untapped mineral resources, investment, more than 80,000 expatriate workers, besides of course 1.5 million Afghan refugees still on the soil of Pakistan.

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Can we afford to lose our relevance to Afghan peace, Afghanistan’s reconstruction and rehabilitation and having invested so much in that country now destroy our goodwill because we would continue pursuing a policy that has not delivered and is not likely to deliver any positive outcome in the future?

While the world moves on, while borders are vanishing, while trade, investment and energy corridors are becoming the order of the day in a new globalised environment, we in India and Pakistan seem totally oblivious to the powerful currents of change sweeping the world.

We are, as far as our relations are concerned, frozen in time — even as millions of people in South Asia go hungry every day and 440 million in India and more than 45 million in Pakistan live below the poverty line.

We owe it to the teeming millions living in the subcontinent to wake up to the realities, forego our jingoistic and pathetically absurd notions of nationalism and begin to dispassionately reappraise our policies in order to help create an environment of trust, tolerance and accommodation, in which to pursue the goal of closer economic, political and cultural contacts for the benefit of the people and the region.

Published in The Express Tribune, March 14th, 2016.

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Reader Comments (26)

  • abdulrauf akhtar
    Mar 13, 2016 - 10:30PM

    What so ever ground route transportation will not be allowed till India dosnt comes to term with Pakistan.Pakistan shouldnt allow any hing via air land n sea route. Recommend

  • numbersnumbers
    Mar 14, 2016 - 1:17AM

    Great analysis!!Recommend

  • NHA
    Mar 14, 2016 - 1:35AM

    ‘exclusive strategic space’. This whole thing is nonsense. Pakistan is only interested in a peaceful Afghanistan which is not source of trouble – be it India , Taliban or any one else. Pakistan will never want military uses of Afghan territory. This is a false notion spread by vested interests and blindly followed by careless writers.

    Further Afghanistan’s importance is exaggerated . Yes, it is transit route to Central Asia . Afghanistan will benefit if it encourages and facilitates conveyance through its territory. But linking it to Indian interests will not work.

    Afghanistan must appreciate that even this geographical advantage will disappear once CPEC infrastructure is in place. There will be new routes to Central Asia through China .

    As a Muslim country with shared history, border, and common benefits accruing from close and tension free relationship must be aim of both sides.Recommend

  • Humza
    Mar 14, 2016 - 5:47AM

    Astounding that a former ambassador to Kabul should have no understanding of the Afghan- India nexus which has nothing to do with recent political events ! From the time the British left the region, Afghanistan willingly adopted the role of Indian puppet state by serving as a base for anti Pakistan activities. It is common knowledge that the first prime Minister of Pakistan was killed by an Afghan national in Rawalpindi or that Afghanistan did not recognize Pakistan’s independence in 1947. Decades of wasting money and engaging in intrigue in Pakistan’s neighboring border provinces of KPK and Baluchistan for Indian intelligence only backfired on Afghanistan which would up in its own civil war since the leaders were obsessed with Pakistan instead of focusing on their own people’s welfare. Afghans blame Pakistan to cover their own inadequacies but no one, least of all Afghans believe it! These same people run to Pakistan as refugees rather than to India. The only sensible thing is to control the border with Afghanistan but we all know an open border with open trade to India will only encourage greater violence and crime of the type that India and Afghanistan have wrought on Pakistan for the last 79 years. Thank goodness crime and terrorism have finally come under control so no thanks to opening up the transit route for more smuggling, violence and terrorism the nation cannot afford. Better relations and trade can occur only when Afghanistan gives up its role as an Indian lackey.Recommend

  • Jaihoon
    Mar 14, 2016 - 6:28AM

    Kudos to the writer for his objective analysis of the subject mater that is of paramount importance for the socio-eeconomic development of Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as for the regional stability and prosperity. Pakistani rulers are in need of soul-searching and to realistically re-evaluate it’s counter productive policy via-a-vis AfghanistanRecommend

  • vvd
    Mar 14, 2016 - 8:53AM

    A very sensible writeup.The writer has hit the nail on the head by stressing that trade is the new avenue that smooth-ens all frictions and oils the ties.Refreshing to read such articles from Pakistan. Recommend

  • Afghan
    Mar 14, 2016 - 9:09AM

    Pakistan have been in ambush for the all the benefits and interests to be harvested from Afghanistan while India always tried to help out Afghanistan from the very first day. Recommend

  • NHA
    Mar 14, 2016 - 10:06AM


    ‘Indian access to Afghanistan is going to transform the region’. What an un-intelligent assertion. Indian efforts at containment of Pakistan and China is causing conflict. Afghanistan is playing in the hands of India and helping in the encirclement of both Pakistan and China This will not work . Even the former US Defence Secretary said Afghanistan has allowed itself to become a satellite state of India. So far goes Afghan self- respect and spirit of independence.

    As for Indian Trade with Afghanistan, it is allowed under transit trade agreement though it is casing colossal losses to Pakistan revenues and is to the determent to Pakistan industry. The strange story of last Transit Agreement is known to only few. It was signed in Washington and the copies distributed in Pakistan were not the same as signed.

    India and Afghanistan are using US to further their agenda in the region. Pakistan abundantly clear about it and will not grant any concession or facility which aggravates this situation. Recommend

  • Marco
    Mar 14, 2016 - 10:59AM

    @NHA: Right….and the history is always the liar!Recommend

  • Sam
    Mar 14, 2016 - 11:09AM

    @abdulrauf akhtar……lol, keep dreaming buddy, India is not coming to pak for transit, instead India with Iran & afghanstan is working on chahbahar route, which will most probably operational by the end of November this yearRecommend

  • Tyggar
    Mar 14, 2016 - 11:47AM

    Even the former US Defence Secretary said Afghanistan has allowed itself to become a satellite state of India.

    Please provide the reference to your claim that the US Defense secretary said Afghanistan has become the satellite state of IndiaRecommend

  • PashtunZalmi
    Mar 14, 2016 - 12:13PM

    @NHA, Afghanistan can not be black mailed any more for not having access to the sea. They are going to convert this strategic weakness into strength. Except Pakistan rest of the world is open to trade & transit. Did you miss the news that China send a 34 container train to Iran through Kazak-Turkemistan 3 weeks ago, which is the real silk road. Iran is building dirct Rail & road through Afghanistan to Tajikstan to China to connect Chabahr. India is already committed to Chabahar-Afghanistan-Central Asia-Russia & Europe road – rail link. Next moth there would be big news in Delhi in this regard. By closing Wahga, we are shooting ourselves in the legs & to be disabled for ever. Recommend

  • Observer
    Mar 14, 2016 - 12:14PM

    “people-to-people ties”

    As a matter of fact it’s only one people who are coming to our region not anyone from us Pakistanis going to Afghanistan. Send back millions of Afghan back to their country and develop your own country instead of meddling and searching any foothold there.Recommend

  • Observer
    Mar 14, 2016 - 12:19PM

    Correction: There is not 1.5 million but more than 5 million illegal Afghan refugees, in Sindh, Balochistan and KPK. We did not make this country for to handle Afghanistan and their people for the rest of the lives. Recommend

  • Amit
    Mar 14, 2016 - 12:33PM

    I don’t know from where u guys get the factual data to support your views, 440 million people going hungry everyday in india are u kidding me.last time I checked from GHI it was 185Million. Anyhow nice try.Recommend

  • Spectacle
    Mar 14, 2016 - 12:49PM

    Are you dyslexic or something: Read again: ‘440 million living below the poverty line’ while millions going hungry in India Recommend

  • KWK Basharmal - Kabul
    Mar 14, 2016 - 2:06PM

    For the first time, Rustum Shah has written something very important. Please, coordinate Mr. Zakhilwal in this mission.

    Well written piece Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Mar 14, 2016 - 2:51PM

    It is mind-boggling how, living in such close proximity and sharing such deep historic bonds of affinity, Islamabad and Kabul have failed to develop a better understanding of the perceptions, fears and suspicions in each country that impinge on the formulation of policy affecting their mutual ties.

    It is very simple sir, the Punjabi dominated Government of Pakistan will not allow the improvement of relations between the people with all their neighbours. For Afghanistan folks the only route to warm waters is through the rugged terrain of the Iranian republic. .

    Rex MinorRecommend

  • Abid
    Mar 14, 2016 - 4:15PM

    India secret manoeuvring in Afghanistan against Pakistan is the main hurdle between AF-PK relations. Pakistan has always shown enough inflexibilities in establishing amicable relations with Afghanistan and India. Apart of this, some hawkish in India and Pakistan does not want peace and stability in the region; hence, often they resort to sabotage the peace process or other special event. First, Indian and Pakistan should remove their trust deficit and then it would be possible to initiate trilateral trade via Wagha-Torkham route.Recommend

  • NHA
    Mar 14, 2016 - 5:27PM


    India is playing games. The show in Afghanistan is coming to finale. These are tactics to pressurize Pakistan and influence decisions. It has used all tools including support of Baluchistan militancy, arming and funding of TTP, attacks on Pakistan military installations , infiltration via Afghans intelligence etc. Pakistan will not be blackmailed via Afghanistan.

    Afghan trade with India is minuscule. The latter in fact wants to use Afghan good offices to force Pakistan for land route for Central Asia. Only a fool will not understand the game and grant this facility to India.

    For 65 years the Afghan Transit Trade was working fine ,though we lost billions in revenue due to smuggling, what is new now to justify the land route.

    Afghans should stop playing mother to India and look after their own interests. Pakistan will be more than happy to oblige as it did for the last over six decades.

    The issue is political. Recommend

  • NHA
    Mar 14, 2016 - 8:47PM

    @Rex Minor: Who has provided Afghanistan access to warm water for the last 65 years. Pakistan. Afghans want to try rugged mountains of Iran on the behest of India, let them do. US & NATO tried it. Now India and Afghans may try.

    As for Pakistani Army, it has shown the world how wars are fought and won. Give it whatever name you find easy to pronounce. Recommend

  • Grace
    Mar 14, 2016 - 11:23PM

    @PashtunZalmi: We saw how innocent Pakistani kids were killed by terrorist cowards controlled from Afghanistan and I am sure majority Pakistanis want Afghan refugees to go back to Afghanistan. I want Afghanistan to only do trade only at border with Iran at Chabahar and they should ask Iran to take all refugees there to do the incredible business that Iran- Afghanistan- India- Central Asia is going to do. Please do that and leave us alone ! We are happy with CPEC and our own route through Central Asia via China. No more blackmail from Afghanistan and PS I know you are Indian!Recommend

  • Srinivasulu Mekala
    Mar 15, 2016 - 1:54AM

    Pakistan is doing things India would love her do. Who could be the most lovable enemy? Obviously the one who hurts himself without giving any chance to you to the very same.Do what you are doing, thank you.Recommend

  • Avtar
    Mar 15, 2016 - 5:20AM

    @abdulrauf akhtar:
    Illogical. It may be unlawful as well, other than during war perhaps. Trade still occurs but it benefits mainly smugglers or well connected people in the establishment.
    The author has nicely summed up Pakistan’s irrational policy. You are right the world is moving on – modern corporations (unlike East India or Dutch East India cos.) do not access to physical territory. NIke, Addidas, GE and so on goods are in demand even where ever they are banned. Recommend

  • Salaar khan
    Mar 15, 2016 - 11:19PM

    Mr Mohmand after going through your article it seems that the root cause of our problems with both Afghanistan and India is our denial of trade route to them. You forgot to mention what India is going to do if we open our country for her, today the Indians did not allow our only six diplomates to watch a cricket match and over here the so called scholars and former diplomates like you teach us that we are at the fault. Your analysis are always against our state policy, but it does not make you the noam chomsky of PakistanRecommend

  • gp65
    Mar 16, 2016 - 4:05AM

    “even as millions of people in South Asia go hungry every day and 440 million in India”

    Reference please?Recommend

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