Afghanistan’s Landlocked Trap
Dr Yatharth Kachiar, Research Associate, VIF

Pakistan’s denial of the air passage to the Indian cargo flights bound to Afghanistan comes as a major impediment in enhancing the regional connectivity of landlocked Afghanistan.1 In September 2018, Spice Jet has signed up a contract with Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AICC) to run cargo operations between Delhi and Kabul. However, according to some media reports, in a gross violation of civil aviation as well as World Trade Organisation (WTO) norms, Pakistan civil aviation authority has denied passage to Spice Jet Cargo Flights to Afghanistan thrice in last week of December 2018 and again on 11 and 14 January 2019. India has already raised its objections with Islamabad.2

As a landlocked country, the trade and development in Afghanistan are hindered by the country’s lack of access to the sea as well as its inaccessibility from the international markets. This obstacle imposed by the geographical location is further compounded by the uncompromising attitude of Pakistan as a transit state. Despite repeated requests from both India and Afghanistan, Pakistan has constantly denied transit trade route to India for the export of its goods to Afghanistan. In fact, Pakistan has repeatedly blocked Afghanistan’s trade with India over the Wagah Border despite being agreed in the now lapsed Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA).

To overcome the obstacles imposed by the geography and negative mindset of Pakistani establishment, India has been working closely with the Government of Afghanistan to establish alternative routes of connectivity. One such initiative was the establishment of air freight corridor connecting New Delhi and Mumbai with Kabul in 2017. The aim of this air corridor is to encourage bilateral trade between the two countries, enhance regional connectivity of Afghanistan by giving it direct access to the Indian market, allow Afghan businessmen and farmers to benefit from India’s economic growth and trade networks, and to export their perishable goods to Indian market without any hindrance. 3

The current move by the Pakistani establishment is part of its years-old zero-sum approach vis-à-vis India especially in relation to Afghanistan. In its bid to achieve so called ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan in relation to India, the Pakistani establishment has always preferred a state on its western borders which is economically and militarily dependent on Pakistan. In order to accomplish its objectives, Pakistan has repeatedly resorted to economic strangulation of Afghanistan by denying it the transit trade route. According to the estimates of Ministry of Commerce and Industry, the closing of Durand Line for 30 days in 2017 by Pakistan resulted in the loss of US $ 100 million for Afghanistan.4

Till recently, Afghanistan’s main access to global and regional markets was the port of Karachi. That is why Pakistan’s ability to close its borders or restrict the transport of goods puts Afghanistan in an extremely vulnerable position. However, the opening of the Iranian port of Chabahar in December 2017 has provided Afghanistan with alternate routes for trade and commerce and has considerably reduced its dependency on Pakistan.5 Moreover, to further curtail its reliance on Pakistan and to overcome the geographical barriers, the Afghanistan Government has also pushed for an aggressive air corridor program to boost its trade and development. In addition to the India-Afghanistan air freight corridor which was opened in 2017, the recent opening of air routes from Afghanistan to Turkey, Europe, Russia, China, and UAE will further improve the connectivity of the country to the global markets.6

According to statistics provided by the SIGAR Report, Afghanistan’s exports via air corridor have grown by 70 percent from USD 230 million in 2015 to USD 391 million in 2017.7 Further, the initiation of air corridor between India and Afghanistan has resulted in an increase in exports of goods by 28 percent from 2016 to 2017. The air corridor has given a boost to the export of perishable items such as Afghan fruits which constitutes a major part of Afghanistan’s exports.8 Moreover, the India-Afghanistan trade in 2017-18 touched approximately USD 1.143 billion which is a significant increase from approx. USD 800 million in 2016-17. 9

On the other hand, Pakistan’s trade with Afghanistan has dwindled in recent times. According to the latest figures released by the State Bank of Pakistan, the exports to Afghanistan has dropped by 17.68 percent from USD 739.233 million in July-December period in 2017 to USD 608.533 million in the same period in 2018.10 Moreover, the figures released by the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry shows that in recent times, Iran has taken over Pakistan as Afghanistan’s biggest trade partner. The trade between Iran and Afghanistan from March 2017 to March 2018 stood at USD 1.98 billion, whereas, the trade between Afghanistan-Pakistan during the same period was USD 1.2 billion.11

Opening of new avenues of global connectivity for Afghanistan has led to the declining of Pakistan’s hold over Afghan economy. This, in turn, has exacerbated the anxieties of Pakistani establishment which is now retaliating in its usual manner by playing the part of a spoiler and blocking the air passage of Indian cargo flights to Kabul. The Chief Executive Officer of Afghanistan, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, reiterated the same sentiments recently in World Economic Forum Summit, 2019, in Davos when he said, “we must free the rationale of strong trade and economic ties from the clutches of narrowly defined security-centric conceptions in our relations. Countries should not have to bulk-trade through air corridors or circuitous routes when there are cheaper alternatives.”12

The duplicity of Pakistan’s actions vis-à-vis Afghanistan becomes obvious when on the one hand it proclaims to work towards achieving peace and resolution in Afghanistan; and at the same time it denies the air corridor between India and Afghanistan in order to curtail the efforts made by violence-ridden, landlocked country to overcome its geographical disadvantages and improve its economic growth. The false and narrow conception of security adopted by Pakistan should not be allowed to thwart the efforts of Afghan people towards a better and prosperous future.

End Notes:
  1. Rohullah Arman, “Pakistan Disrupts India-Afghanistan Cargo Flights”, 24 January 2019, TOLO News, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/business/pakistan-disrupts-india-afghanistan-cargo-flights
  2. Rohullah Arman, “Pakistan Disrupts India-Afghanistan Cargo Flights”, 24 January 2019, TOLO News, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/business/pakistan-disrupts-india-afghanistan-cargo-flights
  3. Ministry of External Affairs, India, URL: https://mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/28546/India_and_Afghanistan_establish_Direct_Air_Freight_Corridor
  4. Zabihullah Jahanmal, “Torkham Closure ‘Damaged’ Pakistan’s Reputation”, TOLO News, 21 MARCH 2017, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/torkham-closure-%E2%80%98damaged%E2%80%99-pakistan%E2%80%99s-reputation
  5. Private Sector Development and Economic Growth: Lessons from the U.S experience in Afghanistan”, SIGAR Report, URL: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/SIGAR-18-38-LL.pdf, p. 18
  6. “Air cargo route opens from northern Afghanistan to Turkey, Europe”, Reuters, 9 January 2019, URL: https://in.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-trade/air-cargo-route-opens-from-northern-afghanistan-to-turkey-europe-idINKCN1P31D3; Also see, “Afghanistan opens air cargo corridors with Europe, Russia, China, and UAE”, 27 September 2018, Afghanistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry, URL: http://www.acci.org.af/component/content/article/38-news/782-n.html
  7. SIGAR Quarterly Report, October 2018, URL: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2018-10-30qr-section3-economic.pdf, p. 138
  8. SIGAR Quarterly Report, October 2018, URL: https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/quarterlyreports/2018-10-30qr-section3-economic.pdf, P. 136
  9. Ministry of External Affairs, India, URL: https://mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/Bilateral_Brief_on_Afghanistan_December_31_2018.pdf; Also see, https://www.mea.gov.in/Portal/ForeignRelation/1Afghanistan_October_2017.pdf
  10. “Pakistan’s Export Of Goods To Afghanistan Dwindles”, 23 January 2019, TOLO News, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/business/pakistan%E2%80%99s-export-goods-afghanistan-dwindles
  11. F.M Shakil, “Steep fall in Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral trade”, Asia Times, URL: http://www.atimes.com/article/steep-fall-in-pakistan-afghanistan-bilateral-trade/
  12. Mir Aqa, “Political Rivalry A Barrier To Economic Growth In S. Asia: CEO”, 23 January 2019, TOLO News, URL: https://www.tolonews.com/afghanistan/political-rivalry-barrier-economic-growth-s-asia-ceo

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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