India’s perceptive on the strategic importance of the Chabahar port in Iran can be a well-earned asset if dealt properly. Since 2001, India has been heavily investing in socio-economic sectors in Afghanistan []. Taliban’s positive move on support to India is encouraging vis-a-vis India’s strong stand against US to not involve in the country’s relation with Afghanistan. Chabahar has been a link since the Tehran Declaration (2001) and the New Delhi Declaration (2003) for infrastructural development and regional connectivity. The Chabahar pact of 2016 between India, Iran and Afghanistan has been a pivotal project to facilitate trade to Afghanistan and connecting Central Asia as well as Eurasia []. The road to this pact has been a rough one with many obstacles ranging from funding to implementation. India’s move post US waiver on Iran’s Chabahar [] is commendable. The recent meet between the trio at Chabahar in December last year was on the follow up of the operationalisation of the port agreement []; it is encouraging that the project has been put on the table as a priority. The Indian government in the past year and half has shown interest in the utilisation of the USD 150 million invested on the first phase of port development situated in the Sistan –Baluchistan province of Iran [, which is just approximately 80 kilometres away from Gwadar port in Pakistan. India is presently placed at a position where the geopolitical shifts and opportunities in the extended neighbourhood could be seized to its advantage.
Chabahar as a Priority for India
The development of the Chabahar port is very strategic for India. According to the Memorandum of Understanding signed by India and Iran in May 2015, the first phase of Chabahar port would be equipped with a capital investment of USD 85.21 million and annual revenue expenditure of USD 22.95 million on a ten-year lease []. Chabahar is also an important port city in the Sistan-Balochistan province of Iran; which is adjacent to Baluchistan in Pakistan where Gwadar port lies geographically. The cultural link with the southern province of Iran is pre-emptive for India to keep a check on the crisis struck province of Pakistan. Firstly, the port would help India transit trade to Afghanistan since Pakistan has refused to do so due to hostile diplomatic relations. Both New Delhi and Kabul had put various options for transit corridors on the table, but they had come to a consensus on maritime mode over air mode as waterways are more economical for both. The Chabahar port gives an advantage to Afghanistan by reducing its dependence on the Karachi port thus minimising Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan’s economy. This can be sighted as an economic push for furthering better relations between India and Afghanistan. Second, India in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Iran in 2016 had agreed on constructing two terminals of five berths which includes a multipurpose cargo terminal (600meters) and a container terminal (640 meters) []. This would assist India in its bilateral and trilateral trade with Iran and Afghanistan; developing Chabahar as a gateway to Central Asia and route for the proposed International North South Corridor connecting Eurasia. India’s import of uranium from Kazakhstan could be more cost friendly through this port. Third, the proximity of Chabahar to Gwadar in the Strait of Hormuz is strategic as India’s partial influence at the Chabahar port as per the contract could negate the challenges and observe the developments closely in the Persian Gulf []. Indian Government owned IRCON has also invested USD 1.6 billion in linking Chabahar and Zahedan [], which is situated close to Iran- Afghan border, through railways. The investment in the port benefits India with an alternative direct access through maritime-railways to Afghanistan exploiting the earlier invested roads from Zaranj- Delaram in the landlocked nation. However, it becomes more prioritised for India as Taliban has assured to protect and support any economic project which would foster development in Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban has been dominant player since 1994 and has ruled during 1996-2001 in Afghanistan. Currently, it is assessed that half of Afghanistan is controlled by the Afghanistani Taliban. They have pressurised the democratically elected government supported by the United States of America (US) at Kabul and to an extent successful in the withdrawal of US troops from the country. Even though India condemned a terrorist attack at Chabahar in December last year [], the security dimensions in Afghanistan are more vulnerable for the port development and trade transit project. In an interview given to a media source by Taliban spokesperson mentioned “Afghanistan wants good relations with all its neighbouring and regional countries. As the representatives of the people of Afghanistan, we want to see healthy and positive role of all countries in Afghanistan based on the needs of the people of our homeland “[]. He also welcomed the development of Chabahar port by saying that “We value all economic projects and are committed to supporting and protecting all projects that are fruitful and positive for the prosperity and development of our country” []. This a welcome note for India from the Taliban denoting that they do not have any issues with the south asian power. It is also perceived that Taliban is ready to work close with Iran and India in economic terms benefitting either side. India’s focus is more on strategic and economic ends which benefits our transit trade route via Chabahar. India would be looking forward to maintain equilibrium with the Government of Afghanistan as well as the Taliban. It is also sceptical on the fact that Taliban values “all” economic projects wherein there are possibilities that even Pakistan or China could be chosen as an economic partner over India. Geographically, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor connecting Gwadar port and currently functioning Karachi port are concerns for India [Fig 1].
Recently India has become vocal on its polarity in south asia by indirectly mentioning to the US that they do not have any role or business in Afghanistan’s personal issues and they could solve it themselves []. This is assessed that neither US nor Pakistan has a direct role in the current scenario and at the same time India has an opportunity to establish a stake in Afghanistan. However, it is interesting to note that the Taliban Spokesperson also stated that ”Afghan Hindus and Sikhs are our countrymen. Just as all Afghans have rights in this country, our Hindu and Sikh countrymen will have their own rights that shall be guaranteed” []. This brings delight to India in terms of soft power diplomacy. This also indicates that if Taliban comes in power in Afghanistan, it would like to build a good rapport with India in many sectors.
If the Afghan Taliban comes into power with a pro-Pakistan support, India should be concerned. The question would be whether Afghanistani Taliban would be ready to compromise on economic development and support from India given the fact that only one of the Taliban spokesperson spoke on the issue. It is also observed that the current ruling government in Pakistan under Imran Khan has been quite lenient and supportive to the Taliban. Accordingly, if the shift of power changes overtime then India would be facing an issue diplomatically to coordinate with the Afghan Taliban. There is also a possibility that the pro-Taliban government would prefer trade via Gwadar or Karachi ports instead of Chabahar. In this situation India would prefer the involvement of US by not withdrawing troops until the next elections in Afghanistan. However, it would be interesting to observe on how things shape up in the next few months until the next trilateral meeting on Chabahar port between India, Iran and Afghanistan later this year at New Delhi [].
Optimistic Future in Indian Context
The proposed investment and the implementation in real terms have been disappointing to an extent. India’s efforts in bypassing the external challenges and the diplomatic engagement in convincing Iran are commendable. The interest proposed by both Iran and Afghanistan is also conclusive. Iran even went on to propose talks with Taliban [] for further infrastructural development and cooperation in trade. The Afghan Taliban is eyeing on India’s funding options as the emerging economy has been providing humanitarian aid since 2001 and is detrimental in infrastructure development in Afghanistan. India’s regional importance is growing and negating Pakistan’s role in Afghanistan would be a big diplomatic win for the south Asian giant. The Afghan Taliban has been vocal on its stands and possibly gives a positive node for all types of economic cooperation with India and Iran. The soft side of Taliban is respected; given that peaceful negotiation is possible for any cooperation which benefits every party involved. India has been very diplomatic on its stands in Afghanistan and verbal on the support to any interim government that comes into power. However, India has an opportunity to seize the role of a ‘stakeholder’ in the wake of a possible withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.
[] Palrecha, N., & Tourangbam, M. (2018, November 24). India’s Development Aid to Afghanistan: Does Afghanistan Need What India Gives? Retrieved February 8, 2019, from The Diplomat: https://goo.gl/uAsqUx [] Question No.432 India-Iran Agreement on Chabahar Port. (2016, July 16). Retrieved February 4, 2019, from Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India: https://goo.gl/ziJpBx [] PTI. (2019, November 7). US exempts India from certain sanctions for Chabahar port development. Retrieved February 8, 2019, from The Hindu Business Line: https://goo.gl/ge7fLJ [] First meeting of the Follow-up Committee between India, Afghanistan and Iran for operationalization of the Chabahar Agreement. (2018, December 24). Retrieved February 8, 2019, from Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India: https://goo.gl/o2HQq3 [] Cabinet approves provision of Credit of 150 Million USD to Islamic Republic of Iran for Chabahar Port Development . (2016, February 24). Retrieved February 8, 2019, from Press Information Bureau , Government of India: https://goo.gl/B8isoF [] Ibid [ Question No.432 India-Iran Agreement on Chabahar Port. (2016, July 16). Retrieved February 4, 2019, from Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India: https://goo.gl/ziJpBx [] Question No.2723 Development of Chabahar Port. (2018, January 3). Retrieved February 27, 2019, from Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India: https://goo.gl/7mn92V [] Chabahar-Zahedan Track-Laying Underway. (2018, January 10). Retrieved February 8, 2019, from Financial Tribune: https://goo.gl/iGwq1n [] India strongly condemns terrorist attack in Chabahar, Iran. (2018, December 6). Retrieved February 8, 2019, from Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India: https://goo.gl/sA8nXe [] Sibal, S. (2019, February 03). Will protect Chabahar; Hindu, Sikh rights guaranteed, says Taliban spokesman to WION. Retrieved February 8, 2019, from WION: https://goo.gl/MsQxQv [] Ibid [] Sibal, S. (2019, January 30). India's talks with Taliban will be a political call: Sources to WION. Retrieved February 8, 2019, from WION: https://goo.gl/tkYKFu [] Sibal, S. (2019, February 03). Will protect Chabahar; Hindu, Sikh rights guaranteed, says Taliban spokesman to WION. [] First meeting of the Follow-up Committee between India, Afghanistan and Iran for operationalization of the Chabahar Agreement. (2018, December 24). Retrieved February 8, 2019, from Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India: https://goo.gl/o2HQq3 [] Tehran offers Delhi a channel to Taliban. (2019, January 9). Retrieved February 8, 2019, from Hindustan Times: https://goo.gl/kVnWrn