The concept of Afghanistan as a land bridge in Asia by establishing linkages between South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East and the Far East was one of the core ideas emanating from the London Conference which amongst other issues also discussed integration of the Taliban, reducing corruption, improving delivery of governance and development. Afghanistan has been on the trade as well as invasion map from Central to South Asia for centuries and in a globalized world where commerce is the leit motif of international relations could well become a transit passage for oil and gas pipelines, goods and passenger trains and container traffic.
The London international conference on 28 January saw 69 foreign ministers; the entire Afghan government hierarchy including the President, Mr Karzai and his newly anointed ministers as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon renews commitment of the international community to rebuilding Afghanistan. Security, good governance and development were the key themes of the Conference.
One of the key aims established by the London Conference the idea of the land bridge. India also indicated that, “Afghanistan should emerge as a trade, transportation and energy hub linking together the countries of the region, from Central to South Asia. Unfettered transit and transport linkages between Afghanistan and the countries of SCO and SAARC could provide larger markets for Afghan products. Growing economic interdependence could catalyze peace and prosperity in the region at large and in Afghanistan in particular,” said the Ministry of External Affairs Press Release on Mr Krishna’s statement in Kabul.
This can happen if the rights of passage of road traffic at present and pipelines and rail traffic later are provided by Pakistan to India and beyond. Afghanistan's private sector representatives have been blaming Pakistan for delay in signing of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Trade Transit Agreement (APTTA) due to Islamabad's reluctance to provide the transit facility to Kabul. The Land Bridge Concept would fructify only once the APTTA is approved. The APTTA will be a game changer for Afghan trade and economy as it would expand opportunities by opening the routes to India. There is resistance in Pakistan for the APTTA. While the US is employing all its leverage to force Pakistan to open up, so far this has not succeeded as India Pakistan relationship continues to be highly charged with tension with a recent incident of rejection of Pakistani cricket players for a commercial league in India also adding gloom. Given these contra indications, it is evident that there would be more resistance to the APTTA in the days ahead and thus the land bridge concept may remain just that an idea in being.
Pakistan’s reluctance could be due to the extraordinary support that India enjoys in Afghanistan. In a recent poll by the Afghan Centre for Socio Economic and Opinion Research and commissioned by agencies like BBC, ABC and German TV ARD, 71 per cent of Afghans favored India, way ahead of Germany at 59 per cent, U.S. with 51 per cent polls, Iran with 50 per cent votes and Britain got 39 per cent. A Gallup poll last year in November had said that 56% preferred India's role in the reconstruction of the country, while 51% preferred the UN, 44% NATO, 30% Pakistan and 42% Iran.
Ironically the massive support to Indian role in Afghanistan is not welcome by one of the principal stake holder in peace and stability in the region that is Pakistan. This would only add to the troubles that the median state between India and Afghanistan has with Kabul and add to the tensions with Delhi as well. Pakistan wants exclusivity in relationship with Afghanistan considering the same as a so called, ‘strategic depth’ an outmoded security concept which has no relevance in a globalised borderless world. However Islamabad’s security establishment is loathe admitting the same and till it has a more inclusive Afghan policy there is unlikely to be any forward movement in the regional relationship as well as peace in Afghanistan.
So if the project of the Land bridge has to fructify, the international community would have to prevail on Islamabad to allow trucks from Kabul to New Delhi and vice versa, for the huge Indian market for dry fruits and other goodies is waiting to be exploited by the Afghans with their flare for trade and friendship epitomized by Rabindranath Tagore’s “Kabuliwalla”.