Last week Pakistan accepted the Indian request to transport 50,000 metric tonnes of wheat to Afghanistan via Wagah border. India announced humanitarian assistance for the people of Afghanistan last month but wanted to ship the food grain through Pakistan. Remember, Pakistan does not allow two-way trade between Afghanistan and India. At present only Afghanistan is permitted to use Pakistan’s land route for exports to India. Therefore, Islamabad had to make an exception to make way for the transportation of wheat. Importantly, the Taliban government also made the request to Pakistan for letting the Indian aid pass through its borders. In fact when Pakistan granted the permission it specifically mentioned that it was doing so at the request of “our Afghan brothers”.
The move is significant on two counts: first Pakistan decided to open its borders for Indian assistance despite tense ties; and second the Taliban government accepted the Indian assistance, although India considers them as Pakistan’s proxy. This indicates that India is now embracing a more pragmatic approach on the Afghan Taliban. Even before the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan, representatives of the Afghan Taliban and Indian government did meet in Doha. Both sides are believed to have maintained contacts since then. The Taliban government is reportedly in favour of India reopening its embassy in Kabul and resuming work on the development projects it stopped after the ouster of Ghani administration.
The permission given by Pakistan to India for wheat transportation through Wagah border highlights a rare consensus between the two nuclear-armed rivals on helping people of Afghanistan who are in desperate need of help. This is happening at a time when relations between Pakistan and India are at the lowest ebb. Diplomatic ties remain downgraded, bilateral trade stands suspended and no structured dialogue is taking place between the two countries at the moment. The root cause of present tensions stems from the unilateral action taken by the Indian government in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region in August 2019. But despite those hiccups and tensions Pakistan and India have shown they can cooperate at least on the issue of Afghanistan. This is a welcome move given the fact that Afghanistan needs international assistance as more than half the country’s population is on the brink of starvation. In other words the plight of Afghans has compelled Pakistan and India to come together.
Afghanistan’s situation is certainly not comparable with Pakistan and India. But the majority of the population in both countries are not living an ideal life. They also need help. Pakistan and India have a combined population of around 1.5 billion. According to the World Bank and other international financial institutions, a sizable population both in India and Pakistan live below the poverty line. They do not have access to basic needs such as health and education. There are many other challenges that require a common strategy by both the neighbours. For example the negative fallout of climate change is taking its toll on Pakistan and India. Lahore and New Delhi have close competition in terms of poor quality index ranking. The problem of smog is becoming worse in every winter. Parts of Pakistan and India are finding it difficult to deal with the problem. The geographical proximity of Pakistan and India means that this problem can only be tackled if they have a joint strategy. For example parts of Pakistani Punjab cannot get rid of or take effective measures against smog if Indian Punjab does not cooperate and vice versa.
This begs a legitimate question: why can’t the two estranged neighbours join hands for the well-being of their own people when they can do so for the sake of Afghan citizens?
Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2021.
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