‘In a ceremony on 29 October 2017, External Affairs Minister Smt. Sushma Swaraj and Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan H.E. Salahuddin Rabbani, through a joint video conference, flagged off the first shipment of wheat from India to Afghanistan that would be transhipped through the Chabahar port in Iran’, according to a statement released by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.
The development of the Chabahar port has been a talking point between India and Iran since 2003, but plans were temporarily put on hold when sanctions were placed on Iran. The signing of the Iran deal in 2015 and the “Trilateral Agreement on Establishment of International Transport and Transit Corridor” in 2016 bolstered renewed action. Up until now, media focus has centred on how the operationalisation of the Chabahar port and the road–rail link to Delaram, Afghanistan, will improve regional connectivity. Though these kinds of mega-projects have the potential to bolster the economic performance of, for example, Afghanistan, they cannot be seen as the ultimate solution to the country’s and the region’s development woes. Structural problems like extortion and corruption will no doubt persist, and, absent a reformative strategy, may thrive within a better-connected region.
Economically and strategically speaking, the opening of the Chabahar port is a major step forward for Afghanistan. As a way of weaning itself off of Western development aid, Afghanistan has been trying to base its economy on exports as a way of generating revenue. As covered in a previous Strategic Weekly Analysis, in June this year, Afghanistan and India opened up an air link that will enable Afghanistan to export fruits and vegetables to India without any cross-border obstructions from Pakistan. The air link, however, is not a feasible option in and of itself due to capacity and cost efficiency problems.
To offset those costs and further expand on the circumventing of Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Iran recently activated the Chabahar port, which is not scheduled to be fully completed until late 2018. A free shipment of wheat from India was shipped to Chabahar, where it will be transported by rail and road through Iran to Afghanistan. Six more wheat shipments totalling 1.1 million tons are scheduled to be shipped from India. Even though those wheat shipments are merely symbolic gifts, none of the three states refused the opportunity to laud it as an omen of regional growth and prosperity.
For Afghanistan, another trade route that circumvents Pakistan certainly looks like a forerunner for growth. Afghanistan has been subject to sporadic border closures for 15 years which have caused major disruptions to the Afghan food trade. Food trucks are thus made to linger at the border where, without proper cold storage facilities, produce goes off. Traders are also made to pay hefty customs duties, insurance and security deposits to border officials.
The problem with Chabahar is that it is often painted as a part of the broader strategic landscape. Given its scope and investment scale, the port project is popularly seen as a short cut to regional prosperity, especially for Afghanistan. Though Chabahar will enable Afghanistan to avoid crossing Pakistani territory, it does not mean Afghanistan will avoid the same problems it faced in Pakistan. There is no guarantee that Afghan traders will be free from challenges such as bribery, extortion, food waste, customs fees and possible border closures or ques just because they are going from Chabahar and through Iran to Afghanistan and vice versa.
As Chabahar and other mega-projects open up, there is the possibility that the aforementioned challenges to trade will be ignored as policymakers and the media divert more attention, money and resources to prestigious, large-scale projects. Expensive highways, railways and ports give off the impression that growth is apparent, and, mixed with political buzzwords like “connectivity”, “growth” and “regional co-operation”, automatically applicable to all.
Chabahar port holds significant potential for Afghan food traders but not without addressing other issues like extortion and food loss. As detailed in a New York Times report, fruit sellers travelling from Kunduz to Kabul… [can get] stopped and extorted up to 41 times.’ Taliban, government militia and police all force traders to pay exorbitant amounts of money in the form of “customs duties” or “road tolls”. On top of formal government taxes, farmers have little money left over to reinvest in their practices or themselves and their families.
It is dubious at best to assume that Chabahar port will suddenly change the fortunes of Afghan food traders and farmers and assuming that this route alone is enough to do so is nonsensical.