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The Taliban, India and Chabahar Port

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To the surprise of many, the Afghan Taliban announced $ 35 million investment in Iran’s strategic Chabahar port. The location of Chabahar is strategically important because it provides direct access to the India Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea, which is a major advantage for the landlocked countries in the region, particularly Afghanistan, as it offers an alternative trade route that bypasses Pakistan.

Chabahar port is a vital link in trade between Afghanistan and Iran. The diversion from Karachi port to Chabahar will imply that Tehran will become the first trade partner with Afghanistan, superseding Pakistan. For the advancement of commercial activities, Kabul can use the Chabahar port for trade with the neighboring countries and the wider region. Moreover, the use of Chabahar port can also help attract foreign and domestic investment in various sectors.

The ‘Chabahar Agreement’ was signed between the Afghan National Government, India and Iran in 2016. Afterwards, Iran handed over the operational charge of Chabahar port to ‘India Ports Global Limited’ (IPGL). Clearly deviating from its past India policy, the Afghan Taliban did not show any objection to the India involvement in the operational charge of Chabahar port while investing the money.

One of the most important features of the ‘Chabahar Agreement’ was to provide Afghanistan access to open seas, bypassing Gwadar and Karachi ports. Islamabad has over the decades repeatedly closed its land borders with Afghanistan, obstructing the country access with South Asia. The same has become relevant again in the light of deteriorating Taliban-Pakistan relations. Islamabad has accused the Afghan Taliban of harboring anti-Pakistani forces.

Muhammad Sohail Shaheen, head of the Taliban’s Doha-based political office, told the Media Line: “our trade with Pakistan surged after foreign forces left Afghanistan, but regrettably, Pakistan laid barriers in the way of our trade. In addition, a lot of the products we want to import through Karachi have been placed on the negative list, so we were forced to other trade line”. The intermittent closure of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in recent months appears to have sent a strong message to Kabul.

The less anticipated decision of the Taliban to approach Iran for the use of Chabahar port indicates the uncertainty in long term diplomatic relations with Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban are trying to minimize whatever leverage Pakistan holds over Afghanistan. A successful arrangement between Afghanistan and Iran can reduce its dependence on Pakistan.

The Taliban’s sudden turn to Chabahar port surprised many, considering persistent animosity between Taliban and Iran since 2021, which have involved deadly border clashes over water distribution from the Halmand river.

Chabahar port has geopolitical implications in the broader context of the regional power dynamics. India has already completed the Zaranj-Delaram highway in Afghanistan, which would facilitate land-based trade from Chabahar to Afghanistan and eventually beyond, to Central Asia. At a time when China’s Belt and Road Initiative is attempting to redraw regional boundaries, India and other regional players are looking at enhancing their own regional connectivity profile.

India and Iran’s Chabahar deal challenges US-backed trade corridor. It could revitalize regional geopolitics by bolstering International North South Transport Corridor (INSTC), undermining US influence and its India-Middle East Economic Corridor (IMEC) project, and amplifying Indian and Irania influence in Afghanistan despite US sanctions and warnings. 

During the march 2024 meeting between Aamir Khan Muttaqi, the Taliban’s foreign minister and J.P Sing , the head of the Afghanistan and Pakistan Division of India’s Foreign Ministry, specially mentioned India’s support  for bolstering trade between the two nations via the Chabahar port.

Access to Chabahar port increases Afghanistan’s access to India, Pakistan’s archenemy. Islamabad has historically been Kabul’s biggest trading partner, but Iran has taken its place in recent years. Musahid Hussian Syed wrote, “Pakistan-Afghanistan trade has dwindled from a high of $ 4 billion to less than a billion now. Afghanistan trade with India increased by 43 percent to $ 570 million last year”.

Pakistan has already lost an 80 percent share of the transit trade with Afghanistan, despite Chabahar partial commissioning. With the signature of this deal, the remaining transit business would move to Iranian ports, cutting Pakistan completely out of the picture. However, Iran does not want Pakistan to overtly shift to the Saudi Arabia led regional block evolving in the Middle East.

US government threatened to sanction IPGL. This time too, New Delhi remains confident it will be able to, in the words of Indian Foreign Minister, ‘Communicate, convince and get’ the United States on the Chabahar deal, so that IPGL would not be sanctioned. It is also about activating the dormant INSTC, that aims at facilitating trade between India, Iran, Russia and several Central Asian and West Asia states.

However, as Delhi and Iran sealed the deal, the US prompted Iran’s neighboring countries to refrain from engaging in any trade with the Islamic Republic, which is already under US sanctions. US felt a geopolitical threat in the India endeavor, apprehending a more substantial economic and military partnership between Iran, Russia and India through Chabahar port and INSTC.

The future of Chabahar depends on several factors, including geopolitical developments, international sanctions, competition with other regional ports, infrastructure development, and regional security. While it holds significant promise as a trade and transport hub, its full realization may require ongoing efforts and cooperation among regional and international stakeholders. The evolving dynamic in the region will continue to shape the port’s future role and importance.

Muhammad Nauman Akhtar
Muhammad Nauman Akhter did his PhD in International Politics from Shandong University, China.
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