India is strengthening its soft power in Afghanistan by providing critical aid through Iran, thereby sidelining a once-essential Pakistan, reported Nikkei Asia.
A spokesman of the United Nations World Food Programme recently informed that an Indian donation of 20,000 metric tonnes of wheat is scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan in the coming months. This would fulfil a commitment made by New Delhi in March to ship the wheat through Iran's Chabahar port.
The goods will eventually cross the Iranian border into Afghanistan's Herat region. Hunger persists in Afghanistan, with the World Food Programme claiming that more than 19 million people are suffering from acute food insecurity, which occurs when a lack of adequate food puts lives or livelihoods in immediate danger, according to Nikkei Asia, a Japanese publication that provides Asian news and analysis to a global audience.
A recent Taliban-imposed restriction on women UN personnel in Afghanistan sparked outrage in the international community and fuelled further concerns about the country's future, even evoking talk of a UN exit. However, a WFP spokesman stated that the organisation is committed to delivering aid in areas where hunger threatens the lives of millions.
"The humanitarian needs across the country remain very high," the representative said, adding that "[India's] contribution will help us reach hungry families where needs are highest."
The decision not only strengthens India's position as a crucial donor of essential aid to Afghanistan but also underscores New Delhi's efforts to craft positive relations, despite the fact that it does not formally recognise the Taliban administration that took power in August 2021. India reinstated its diplomatic presence in Kabul by deploying a "technical team" in mid-2022. According to experts, the region is simply too important to leave.
Furthermore, the current food aid represents a geopolitically significant shift in the way India provides assistance, the report noted.
In response to the Afghan crisis, India proposed transporting 50,000 tonnes of wheat through Pakistan. Pakistan granted consent in November 2021 after significant discussion and pressure from the Afghan Taliban. As a result, the first shipment of Indian wheat was delivered through Pakistan in February 2022.
Nonetheless, despite India's appeal, Pakistan refused to extend the deadline, limiting the supplies to 40,000 tonnes.
Using the port of Chabahar has significant advantages over transporting wheat through Pakistan, avoiding the nuclear-armed neighbours' difficult relationship and allowing India to support Afghans more efficiently.
Ashok Sajjanhar, a former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia said, "Use of Chahbahar negates the indispensability of Pakistan in terms of India reaching out to Afghanistan and Central Asia, especially since (Islamabad's) own relations have gone south with the Taliban and ours have gotten better."
He added, "India has always had a historical and civilizational connect with the people (of Afghanistan). We want to have a technical presence and not a diplomatic one on Afghan soil. We want to ensure that the aid we are going to supply reaches the rightful beneficiaries and not used by the authorities to serve its own people."
Islamabad's relations with the Afghan Taliban have deteriorated, owing in part to Kabul's incompetence or unwillingness to rein in Pakistani Taliban terrorists. And now, India is strengthening ties with a country that Islamabad has always believed to be inside its area of influence.
However, a Pakistani analyst dismissed the trend, stating that India and Afghanistan are autonomous entities whose relations should not be viewed through the lens of Pakistan.
"I think that India and Afghanistan are free countries that must pursue autonomous, independent relations with each other," said Mosharraf Zaidi, a senior fellow at the TABADLab think tank and former policy adviser to Pakistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adding, "In fact, the more regionally integrated countries there are amongst each other, the better it is for Pakistan."
Afghanistan's internationally isolated officials have naturally welcomed India's outreach. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Nikkei Asia, "India is an important country in the region, and Afghanistan values it. We want to have good, friendly, and strong people-to-people relationships with India. The fact that India has just announced a donation of 20,000 metric tonnes of wheat is a great help to the people of Afghanistan, and we are very thankful to the people and government of India for this support."
There are other indicators of deepening ties, but New Delhi is keeping expectations low. After India promised the wheat, the Taliban's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a memo in mid-March announcing a four-day training programme for ministry personnel through the Indian Embassy.
Soon after, India clarified that the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) programme, which is overseen by the Indian External Affairs Ministry, is fully operational and does not represent a shift in New Delhi's stance towards Kabul, Nikkei Asia reported.